Monday, October 31, 2011

and jesus wept

There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to contorl but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.(Abraham Joshua Heshel)

monday, 31 october

We left Jerusalem yesterday, though we will be back through there again today when we head to Bethlehem. I must say we are all a little relieved to be out of the city. Let me tell you a little about the last two days before I get too far behind.

Saturday of course was Sabbath (Shabat) for the Jews and it was for all of us too. It was a great experience to be in Jerusalem, or any predominantly Jewish environment, for Shabat so as to witness and particiapte in all the activities (or lack of which thereof) and rituals that go along with it, from the great meals to everything closing throughout the city to the special Shabat control on the elevators so you don't have to push the button, aside from the beautiful Sabbath services we were able to attend. We had no activities scheduled for that day except for a group check-in that evening.

Seven of us headed out together across the city at about 8:30 AM to see a few other major Christian historical sites. We walked across the valley through the artist colony and up again through the Jaffa Gate, then down David Street, left at the Christian Quarter Street, right on the Via Dolorosa and left on Al-Wad into the Muslim Quarter up to the Damascus Gate, where we stopped for Arabic coffee at the shop I had stumbled on the other day. Then we retraced our steps and turned left on the Via Dolorosa, various pilgrims groups with their priest chaperones already making their devotions at the Stations of the Cross, 'til it turned into Lion's Gate Road, and then out the Lion's Gate and across the street to the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives, dodging traffic. Our first stop was the Tomb of Mary, with its famous 47 steps bult by the Crusaders. It's purported to be one of the most mystical Christian places in Jerusalem. It's very dark and in cruciform, filled with lamps and various types of religious paintings all over the walls, all very Byzantine. Then we walked up to the Church of All Nations, also called the Church of the Agony, built next to an olive grove that tradition claims is the very grove of trees where Jesus prayed before his death, The olive trees there are said to be that old, so there is just the chance that he did at least see or touch these very trees. That church is much more modern and Western, the ceiling covered with mosaiced seals of various countries. There was a huge crowd coming in and out, and a service of some kind going on inside when we got jostled in, and wound up standing right under the seal of the USA. Then we headed farther up to the Church of Mary Magdalene. The three women in our group, especially Lori, wanted to see that one. There were fewer and fewer people as we climbed up, and not many at all entering the gates of this place. It could be because it was heavily guarded, but not by IDF soldiers but by black clad Russian nuns with a box of scarves and various shawls to cover or put around women and men who they deemed inappropriately dressed. Even women in long pants got wrapped. The ascent up to the church itself was beautiful, and in spite of the din of the city behind us it seemed to get quieter and quieter, with carefully manicured gardens on either side of the walkway. The church is a 19th century construction, with nine golden onion domes on top typical of Russian Orthodox churches, and rather small on the inside at least in the antechamber on our side of the inconostasis. It was very hushed and very clean inside, with beautiful lightsome icons all around. There was also a roped-off line just in front of the inconostasis that we were not invited to enter, where folks were making the multiple signs of the cross in front of various images. I assumed that the sisters somehow knew who was Russian Orthodox and who was not. But we didn't feel miffed by that.

After a visit in the church we sat out on the portico for a good long while enjoying the cool breeze coming up the Kidron Valley, before heading a litte farther up the hill. Looking back I realize it got quieter and quieter the higher we climbed, and there were fewer and fewer people, and the churches were more and more simple as well. Our last stop was Dominus Flevit­­--"the Lord wept," sometimes called the Teardrop Church. This is the spot where tradition has it Jesus looked over Jerusalem and wept as recorded in Luke 19. It was pretty poignant to read the words there after all that I've read these past months, and all we have experienced this week: O Jerusalem, if only you knew the ways the lead to peace! It was built in the 1950's by an Italian architect named Barluzzi. It was the smalles chapel we had seen too, only big enough for about 50 people full, with a window at behind the altar that looks out on Jerusalem. As a matter of fact there was a crucfix on the altar in front of the window that was superimposed right on the Dome of the Rock. I don't think that was an accident. I think I can safely say, aside from the Wall, that was my favorite place in Jerusalem, so silent, so simple. I sat outside for a while and then when I stepped inside I was greeted by the sweetest sound: Lori and Jamie were singing a song I had never heard before--"When Jesus Wept"--in canon. It actually sounded like a recording and more than two voices. Everyone in there was sort of transfixed by the moment.

If we had climbed further up the moutain we would have hit the hill of the Ascension, but it was now noon in the blazing Mediterranean sun, and everything was closing for lunch, so we headed back down to the suq for lunch, and then went our separate ways for the rest of afternoon.

Sunday, our last morniing in Jerusalem, we all went together to St George's Anglican Cathedral about a half a mile from the Damscus Gate. I tho0ught it was interesting that with four or five different Christian denominations represented we went to celebrate at the place of a tradition to which none of us belonged. I guess that leveled the playing field. It was very much an Anglican Mass as one would be accustomed to in England, except that it was half in Arabic. The English speaking folks sat in back, the Arabic in front, and the presider went back and forth. Both languages were actually going on simutaneously for the common prayers, the Glory to God and the Our Father, all interspersed with rousing Anglican hymns. The handout with the order of service stated very clearly that this church aims to serve both communties and to be a moderating force in Jerusalem. Actually they tell us that the Christian community is diminishing rapidly in the Holy Land in general as it is all over the Mideast. In places where there is an Arab predominance Christians are a tiny minority but in solidarity often with Muslims because they are both Arabic speakers and nationality. I kind of like all of that.

And then for our last stop in Jerusalem, we saw the far end of the other side of the Jewish social religious soul when we met finally with Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights on Sunday on our way out of town. This is the same rabbi we were supposed to have met with in the Occupied Territories last week but had somehow gotten himself arrested. Rabbis for Human Rights describes itself as "the rabbinical voice of conscience in Israel... established with the purpose of giving voice to the Zionist ideal and the Jewish religious tradition of human rights." It was interesting to hear someone say that the Zionist ideal is really human rights. RHR was founded in 1988 by rabbis who were all Israeli citizens, to champion the cause of the poor, support the rights of Israel's minorities and to stop abuse of foreign workers, as well as trying to keep up Israel's public health care system, fight for economic equity, promote the equal status of women and help Ethiopian Jews. Quite a mandate. But I think they are best known for championing the rights of the Palestinians. As he began, Rabbi Arik said that they were doing nothing but calling Israel to its own best self because the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel had said that the purpose of this new state was
To foster the developement of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants, based on freedom, justice and peace and envisaged by the prophets of Israel; to ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, and gender; to guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, edutaion and culture; to guard the holy places of all religions...

Wow. The part that really got me was the idea of basing it all on the "freedom, justice and peace and envisaged by the prophets of Israel," because it was impossible not to think of that all this past week. Rabbi Arik is a high strung tall man, kind of unkempt and unfocused, or so it seemed to me at first. But as he got warmed up he got more and more focused, pacing the floor in front of us and gesticulating wildly. He spoke to us for about a half an hour. The moment when he really got impassioned is when he was recounting to us how fellow Israelis ask him why he works so hard for the Palestinians, and isn't he worried about security? His answer could be equally applied to American's own situation. Arik said, getting louder and louder "Who's doing more for security?! The securtity forces that are out there abusing young Palestinians and turning them into terrorists, or us, who are making them friends? Who's doing more for the long term security of our country?! I'm doing this for my children!!" Then he told us this story. He was involved in a situation trying to advocate for a young Palestinian teenager who had gotten picked up by the military police in the West Bank. When Arik got there the young man was tied to the military vehicle and the soldiers were taunting him and hitting him. Arik said the kid was trying unsuccessfully not to cry or appear scared. When Arik stepped in to try to stop the soldiers they arrested him too and cuffed him to the other side of the vehicle. Later on when the situation quelled, in the affadavit that the young man gave he talked about all the abuse that he had suffered and then added, "Then a tall Jewish man in a kippa came to help me and told me not to be afraid." "That's why I do this," Arik said, "so that this man will remember when he grows up that a tall Jewish man in a kippa came to help him."

Dave said as we were walking out that it was like having a conversation with the prophet Amos. And several folks said later that they finally got a sense of hope about the situation in Israel. One of the guys who is with us, who is a secular Jew, said in the sharing last night, "I guess I've always wondered why you have to tie in the religious part when you are fighting for social justice. Now I know."

There's hope. Someone in our group, a Jewish woman, said last night that she simply didn't understand Jesus, and why Christians prayed to him and didn't go directly to God. We'll have to have that conversation at some point (we none of us answered right then...). But I love thinking of Jesus as a prophet. A prophet and more, yes, but a prophet, too. That's why he wept over Jerusalem, a prophet's tears.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

mere talk of peace

Love all and hate none,
mere talk of peace will avail you nothing.
Mere talk of God and religion will not take you far.
Be a blazing fire of truth,
be a beauteous blossom of love
and be a soothing balm of peace.
With your spiritual light,
dispel the darkness of ignorance,
dissolve the clouds of discord and war
and spread good will, peace, and harmony among the people.
(Hazrat Jhuaja)
friday, october 28

Some corrections before I continue:
--the Messiah is not expected to come in through the Lion's Gate in the Old City, but the Golden Gate;
--the campus of Haddasah hospital where we went to see the Chagall windows was not the campus that was an island of Israel in Jordanian territory;
--here they call the skull cap a kippa not a yarmulka (which I had also misspelled as yamulka).

And please forgive the other countless typos and misspellings throughout. I do not have my Mac, the computer I'm using does not have WORD on it but a very basic word processing program that has no spell check, and the spell check on blogspot is not functioning (I think, because all the commands show up in Hebrew). And I am dashing out these blogs pretty much uncensored and unedited at the end of very long days, trying to do a good job on my assignment. (Maybe I'll even get some extra credit?)

And one more thing: the affluence of Israel is not spread around evenly. Many people here are struggling to make ends meet and some have left the country because they cannot make a decent living. I learned this because some of the folks from our group are going to a protest tomorrow night in the name of economic justice. I thought that this perhaps was mainly concerned with Arab Israelis, but actually the majority that have been attending these rallies have been Israeli Jews.

I am feeling so conflicted as we all are in the group, I think. As we were driving into the West Bank/Occupied Territories the other day, I said to Dave, "Most tour busses don't come in here, do they?" But of course that is why I decided to do this pilgrimage with this group, mixed group that we are (sorry that there are no Muslims with us, though Gitanjali is a stalwart well-studied Sufi), as a consciousness-raising trip together. I am (as we all are) so moved by the beauty of this city and the country in general. And I am so impressed with what a great job the Israelis have done of building this country, the infrastructure, the social services, the educational system. Much of this has been done with the influx of foreign money of course, much of it from America.

Today we visited Mount Zion proper. There is all kinds of confusion about what piece of property is actually exactly Mount Zion (as opposed to Mount Sion). Where we were today is. It's divided from the Old City by a little valley. It contains a wealth of treasures from all three traditions. Our first stop was the Benedictine abbey of the Dormition. This is in honor of the place where Mary the mother of Jesus died ("fell asleep"), surrounded by the apostles, as legend has it (there is of course no historical record), before she was assumed body and soul into heaven. The current buildings were only built in the early 1900's and bears all the hallmarks of modern artistic (and perhaps German) sensibilities, clean lines and non-proliferation of images. The church is two circular buildings attached, the one being for the monastic choir which opens to the other for the rest of the assembly. There were beautiful mosaics in the ceiling. Below there is a crypt of sorts with a statue of Mary reclining on a bier, the Blessed Sacrament chapel and more beautiful mosaics. I was quite excited for folks to see this place, feeling as if it made up for the heaviness of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; this place was all light and spaciousness. And a lightness in other subtle ways, too: the lettering in the mosaic over the tabernacle read: Deus caritas es... "God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God"; and the most prominent crucifix, in one of the side chapels, showed what I've come to think of as a pre-Franciscan Christus. It was uncolored and showed Jesus dressed as a king, reigning from the cross, having conquered death, with even a hint of a smile on his face.

We then visited a building known as the Cenacolo, (the cenacle), which contains the Upper Room where Jesus ate the Last Supper with the apostles as well as where the Holy Spirit came upon them in tongues of flame. Of course the current building again comes from Crusader times, so it is not the exact room, but tradition has it that this is the location. Morgie tells us they figured out that it would have been this location because Jesus told his apostles (in the Gospel of Mark) to go prepare to eat the Sabbath by going into the city and find "a man carrying a jar of water." But this same building also houses the what is thought (hoped) to be the tomb of David's, and outside was some stunning modern Jeiwsh artistic representations of the tablets of the Ten Commandments. In addition at one point the building had functioned as a mosque. One of my favorite images of Christ, the Pie Pelicanus, the mother pelican tearing her own flesh to feed her children her blood, was on the lecturn that was used by the Muslims, and there is still Arabic script high on the walls around the room though it has been reclaimed for Christian use. As we walked into the upper room there was a Brazilian charismatic group in there singing in Portuguese, waving their hands in the air and laying on hands in healing. As we walked out the other end there was a Jewish family in the courtyard performing a rite of passage for a three year old boy on his birthday, giving him his first haircut, singing and clapping all around him while he was in a special raised chair whose back was made in the shape of scissors. To go from one to the other was beautifully satisfying. Talk about changing the narrative: so these traditions can live together. Morgie had been quoting Isaiah 2 to us at the start of this tour, and everyone had pointed to me and said, "Cyprian!" since they were the exact words used in our song "The Lord's Mountain" as I had explained to the group the day before. Morgie wanted to hear it, so we sat in a little alcove on the street after these visits and sang it for her a capella, with plenty of harmony. It was a good moment.

After lunch, Morgie left us again in the very capable hands of Sarah, a Jewish Israeli who works for an Israeli NGO on the humanitarian crisis looming with the Palestinian people. Our main topic was the security wall that has become so famous and emblematic. She took us (Mahmoud amazingly guiding the tour bus up steep hills on narrow streets; most tour busses don't go here either) to several spots where we could see both the serpentine configuration of the wall. We were also able to see the stark contrast in many areas in Jerusalem itself­­--not the West Bank--where there are derelict under-funded Palestinian neighborhoods on one side of the road and fenced in Israeli settlements on the other. She gave us a dizzying array of facts and seemed to be able to answer any question no matter how complex, but she really made a conscious effort not to editorialize. She just gave us the cold facts, and let us draw our conclusions, 'til the end. The last area she showed us was high up Mount Scopus near the Hebrew University, looking east toward the desert. You could see the spot where we believe Moses stood and looked into the Promised Land though was not allowed to enter, you could see deep into the West Bank, and you could see the Israeli settlements cutting the West Bank in half.

As for the security walls, they work. Suicide bombings have decreased greatly, for instance. According to Sarah and her colleagues, they also have gone beyond their mandate, and seem to intentionally cut neighborhoods in half and cut people off from their livelihoods, as if to intentionally diminish the Palestinian neighborhoods' chance of survival beyond providing security, using security as an excuse to further the "greater Israel" agenda.

As I understand it, in 1947 the U.N. proposed General Assembly Resolution 181, the partition of then British-ruled Palestine into two states, which would have created a Palestinian state as well as the state of Israel. This paved the way for Jewish statehood, but the Arabs refused it, and Palestinian leaders have always insisted that it was right to do so. It is very timely that just today President Abbas, in a rare interview on Israeli television, said that that was a mistake, because now, "Israel existed. Palestine diminished."

Everything seems to hinge on Israel'e existence and expansion. Israel says that the diplomatic deadlock is caused by Palestine's (or at least some elements' in Palestine) refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state. Hamas and other radical elements, especially Palestinians who were dispossessed in the 1947-1948 war, oppose permanent coexistence with a Jewish state. Obviously practically speaking it is too late for that, and one wonders how they can hold on still to such a position. They refuse even to call it Israel, referring to them simply as the Occupiers, because Israel took territory even beyond what had been allotted it by Resolution 181. Palestine and Abbas, on the other hand, say the problem is the Netanyahu government's allowing these continued settlements of the West Bank exactly where, along with the Gaza Strip, Palestinians want to make their state.

The so-called Green Line in Jerusalem was established in the 1949 Armistice Agreement between Israel and its neighbors--Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan--after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War to mark out areas that are administered by the State of Israel and the areas outside of it, which are adminstered either by the Israeli military or the Palestinian National Authority. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel annexed more areas outside of that Green Line, areas that had been ruled by Jordan up 'til then. Israel calls that the "extended municipality of Jerusalem." The Green Line is not an international or permanent border but it was meant "to preserve the territorial claims of all parties." But again, the contested settlements are in areas beyond the Green Line where Palestinians wish to make a state and make a capital in Jerusalem.

What Sarah showed us yesterday is that it is near the tipping point where Isreal is going to make such a piece meal in both Jerusalem and in the West Bank that there will be no contiguous area for the Palestinians to make a state nor to make of Jerusalem a capital. And this certainly appears to be the intention; the far right wants exactly this and is not afraid to say so, to establish (or re-establish) the divinely mandated "Greater Israel." So Sarah proposed to us that there are actually three different solutions: there is still a chance that Palestinians will get a state and a shared capital along the Green Line, even if it is an amended Green Line to post-war 1967 borders; or that there will be a bi-national state shared by Israel Jews and Arab Palestinians with equal rigths and justice for everyone (I can barely imagine that); or one state, Israel, with apartheid.

Those, I think, are just the facts. We were all once again exhausted and overwhelemed and confused by the onslaught of information. We had a couple of hours break in the afternoon and then Morgie hosted us at her reformed synagogue for Sabbath evening service. It is a very progressive congregation, both Sarah and Rabbi Arlich (the one who had just been arrested) we in attendance too. The rabbi was wonderful and led us through their very contemporary service (all the psalms in totally inclusive language translations for God and people) with wonderful singing throughout and wonderful modern prayers. And a very welcoming community. We're definitely hanging out with the leftist Israelis, but they are Israelis, the ones who are fighting for their country to do the right thing. As one person described it: "We do everything in the name of our defensible borders. But we go beyond our defensible borders: we act like bullies."

That is partially because of this: when the Israelis ascended to the Temple Mount at the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, having warded off the threat from the united Arab nations, Karen Armstrong writes:
The phrase "Never again!" now sprang instantly to Jewish lips in connection with the Nazi Holocaust. This tragedy had become inextricably fused with the identity of the new state. Many Jews saw the State of Israel as an attempt to create new life in the face of that darkness. Memories of the Holocaust had ineveitably surfaced in the weeks before the Six Day War, as Israelis listened to Nasser's rhetori of hatred [He threatened to "drive them into the sea."] Now that they had returned to the Western Wall, the words "Never again!" were immediately heard in a new context. "We shall never move out of here"...

I heard one Israeli commentator say on NPR some months ago, "We don't care if the rest of the world hates us. We will survive."

Friday, October 28, 2011

walls and fences

The softest thing in the world dashes against and overcomes the hardest.
That which has no existence enters where there is no crevice.
I know hereby what advantage belongs to doing nothing with a purpose.
Tao te Ching, 43
27 oct, 2011, yad vashem and the west bank

After our long day seeing the major sites on Wednesday, after dinner we had our first of what will be several presentations from people speaking from alternative narratives in the region. Her name was Roni Kider; she is a Jewish woman from a little village right on the border of the Gaza Strip who runs an organization called "Other Voice." She had originally been a part of another village (she did not like the word "settlement") in the area that was given back to Egypt in a peace treaty, a place that she and her colleagues had "turned into a paradise," she said, with agricultural advances and water systems. The village was bulldozed to the ground when they left, and when she passed it by later she said she wept. She had also spent five years living in Egypt, since her husband had livd in Cairo (a home from which he was forceably displaced at a young age), speaks fluent Arabic and taught agriculture in Cairo. She told a touching story about the long struggle to get her young daughter's Palestinian best friend's mother to allow the children to play together, and eventually become friends with Roni herself. This inspired her to start this loose-knit organization simply to inspire and encourage conversations and friendships. Few of her fellow citizens in her current village support her, but she presses on nobly. She was a genteel woman, well-spoken and kindly, and obviously very intelligent. She encourages people not let go of the past--not forget it, she insisted, just let go--and look together to the future. Where do we go from here?

I asked a couple of questions. I am still trying to get the facts straight and the situation in 1967 that set the stage for this whole thing. The first I asked was pretty naive, I guess, but it seemed like an obvious thing: couldn't the Jews and the Arabs/Muslims have lived together here? No, she said, we could not. And then I asked her of the two million (!) Palestinains refugees living in the Gaza Strip, how many of them were/are displaced people from what is now Israel? None, she said, they all left on their own, no one chased them out. I wanted to believe her, but that didn't have the ring of the whole story to me. As one of our group has quoted to me, it sounded like "narrative getting confused with truth." Others told me later that they had the same reaction.

This morning was totally dedicated to the Holocaust Museum, called Yad Vashem, Hebrew from a line from the prophet Isaiah
meaning "everlasting rememberance." There are no words to describe the museum nor the experience. The main building is a long A-frame structure that is like a tunnel inside. Immediately upon entering you see a film playing on the back wall of the tunnel of life in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century before the Nazis. At the other end far away is clear glass, "a light at the end of the tunnel," but in order to reach that you need to go through a series of obstacles in the long corridor that make you jut in and across to verious side rooms that tell the history of the Holocaust in chronological order, from Hitler's rise to power as Chancellor of Germany through to the Final Solution in the early 1940's, the gas chambers and crematoria. Morgie led us through wearing a microphone transmitting to us via headsets. She is so incredibly knowledgeable of the whole history. She actually teaches Holocaust history in Poland as well as acting as a tour guide. Again, I won't even attempt to summarize it except to say that the whole place makes the actual situation come very much alive, everything from the victims shoes and personal items that were found in there pockets (many of them were stil carrying their house keys, for instance) to Oskar Schindler's actual list, and of course many little details that I had never known about.

There was one panel "dedicated" to Pope Pius XII and his silence. Morgie had mentioned it earlier in connection with Pope Benedict's visit to Isreal and this very museum, how he had gone to another building, the Hall of Rememberance, but had not come to the museum itself because of that particular display. And then when we got to it, she read it out loud to us in its entirety, and added that "we have no intention of taking it down." She also singled out Catholicism (not all of Christianity?) for stirring up anti-Semiticism throughout history, which is true enough, by naming the Jews "Christ-killers" and worse. I was sorry she didn't make any mention of Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, or Deitrich Bonhoffer, nor the countless Catholics (Fr Deiss, Pope John Paul II, my old friend Paolo) who worked in the underground resistance. And I wondered too about the silence of the Lutheran chcurch in Germany itself, to which I think we can assume many of the Nazis belonged.

Finally at the end of the tour you come upon the glass wall at the far end, and Morgie opened the door and said, "The light at the end of the tunnel: Isreal!" And you walk out on to a upward slanted porch to see a vista of beautiful countryside looking west toward the Mediterranean. That stayed with me strongly, the bald unequivocal statement that the Jews now have Israel as a safe haven from that--is that the right wording? Maybe it is just to point out that in the end, in spite of that horrific suffering, "Look! now we live in a paradise." Or, a little more darkly understood, as if to say, "Now you see we are so fiercely self-defensive and protectionist." All of the young people from the Israeli Defense Force walking around with machine guns in the plaza afterward really drove that point home.

There were a few other sites to see on the grounds, the aforementioned Hall of Rememberance, and the Memorial to Children, which reduced a few of the mothers to tears. None of us could or wanted to speak much aftereward. I kept thinking of the Western Wall and juxtaposing it to the fences put up around the Warsaw ghetto and the concentration camps and death camps. Morgie did tell us that she didn't like the word "camps." "'Camp' is where I send my kids," she said. "These were death 'facilities.'"

After picking up a quick lunch at a shopping mall, Morgie left us. Gitanjali and I taught the other pilgrims Tim Manion's version of Psalm 122, "Pray Peace." I hadn't sung that in years, and I was kicking myself when I got here that I hadn't thought of it, so I wrote to Rory and Tom Kendzia and asked one of them to send it, which Rory kindly did. I'd forgotten what a great marchin' song that was, and perfect for the aliyah--ascent. I'd also forgotten how beautiful the verses were. Here's verse 2:
Whispered gently by the Spirit is the Law
sounding clear across our days the call.
Hold we firm before the powers and we
pray peace, pray peace, pray peace.
We then headed behind the other wall and fences, into the Occupied Territories, the West Bank. People had told me about the poverty I would see in the West Bank, so I was prepared for that. Oddly enough, what I wasn't prepared for was the affluence of Israel. That's what really made the contrast, so suddenly to see scattered half built structures and beat up cars.

That word "occupied" never struck me with as much force before, it's tossed around so glibly. There were cars lined up at the security check point--Palestinian cars with their green license plates­­--while vehicles with Israeli license plates and our tour bus drove right through. We saw some of the new disputed settlements right away. We were told that some of the settlers simply see this as suburban Jerusalem. Israelis can at this point simply go into this land and start new developements, usually on highest hills, and they will be supported by the government. This is also what "occupied territory" means: the occupiers can do whatever they want there with impunity. I still get different versions of what is meant by the '67 borders, but this much seems to be true: The agreement after the Six Day War, when Isreal chased Jordan out of this region, set this area aside for the Palestinians, even though it was still under Israeli control. But of course the ultra-Zionists, supported by American money, want this land for Israel too, and are slowly moving in until the status quo changes. These are some of the settlements that are standing in the way of the peace talks. Most of the signs were now in Arabic instead of Hebrew, but at one point we saw something the entrance to one of the new settlements, like a subdivision about to be built, with signs in Hebrew around some construction type trailers. I wondered if they were actually advertising for the new neighborhood. The settlements have chain link fences around them.

It's hard to write about these things. I"m trying to act like a journalist and be objective, not editorialize. But when you write the facts it sounds as if you are trying to make Israel look bad. These are just the facts. I certainly don't sympathize with the terrorist actions taken by Hamas or al-jihad. I kept reminding myself over and over: everyone agreed when the Gaza Strip and the West Bank were carved out for the Palestinian people. And now the Israelis are moving in, and no one can stop them.

Our guide for the day was supposed to be Rabbi Arich from Rabbis for Peace, but as we were driving in Rabbi Paula got a phone call that he had been arrested and someone else was going to come in his place, Rabbi Yehiye, with whom we rendez-voused along the side of the road. He came into the bus and gave us some preliminary remarks. He's the son of Polish Jews who were Holocaust survivors himself, raised in Melbourne, Australia. He led us deeper in, past Ramallah in the distance (one of the areas where the Israelis have no jurisdiction). As we were driving, every now and then I would see UN vehicles passing by, and young Orthodox kids with their black and white clothes, and broad rimmed hats or yamulkas. Yehiye was a gentle man in his 60s, with a face that seemed to go back and forth between kindness and worry. He explained to us that there is a group of rabbis who live in Israel proper who work with and for the Palestinian people as their advocates in courts and protecting them as they tend to their crops. We were on our way to do the latter as well. It seems as if the settlers like to place obstacles between the Palestinians and their crops, hoping that they will simply give up and leave this land for them. (But where would they go?) Some have even chopped down olive groves. But the biggest probelm is water. The settlements have all the water they want. The Palestinians have little and sometimes none. I asked, "Is there any justification, rationale given for that?" No, there isn't.

Mahmoud, our bus driver, dropped us off at a grove of olive trees and without any preliminary hellos or sala'ms or introductions, we climbed up some ladders and got to work. There were three young guys, two older men and an old woman with a baby already at work on this little grove of trees. I was on a tall ladder stripping branches with Lori. One of the young guys finally caught our attention and started trying to have some interaction with us in Arabic and sign language. This went on for about an hour, during which time we were offered ice cold Coca Cola from our smiling hosts, and Bakr, one of the 15 year olds, shimmied up the tree between Pastor Dave and I, and started pretty much showing off for us and (mostly) for the women in the group, as a 15 yuear old might. After about an hour we gathered around Rabbi Yehiye and Zacaria, a Palestinian man who seems to be a leader in his community. He told us a few more horror stories about aggression on the part of the Israeli settlers toward the Palestinians, fire bombing cars, chopping down trees and petty things like throwing rock at their goats while they are grazing just to try to provoke an altercation, knowing that the Israeli soldiers in the area cannot arrest the Israelis but can hold the Palestinians until the police come. I might have thought he was exaggerating but for having heard several times now similar stories from Jewish Israelis who are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, from a human rights perspective. As if on cue, Zacaria got a phone call that three young men had been arrested by the Israeli military in his village. After conferring with Yehiye, he hurried off and left Yehiye to finish up with us.

Yehiye told us that it is American Jewish and evangelical Christian money that is behind the settlements. Whether that is absolutely true or just his "narrative" may be subject to a fact check, but it sounds right to me, and that is certainly what Palestinians think. I asked him what his co-religionists, his fellow Israelis, and finally the Palestinians thought of him, a rabbi in their midst. He answered well, first by saying, "Well, we never really knwo what people think of us!" Then he went on to say that for the first two it is a mixed bag, but there are obviously a lot of people who think that he is a traitor. The Palestinians he says are usually at first surprised. They think that all Jewish Israelis hate them. But he has been at this a long time and has developed relationships of trust. "I may be the only Jew they ever meet," he said. He has gone to the court with them and stood up for them in the face of violent settlers, protected their crops and their families. He told a story from the Talmud about a poor and illiterate man who wanted to marry a queen, but the queen said the only way she would marry him is if he proved his love by learning how tro read and write. He struggloed for months trying to learn but made little progress. He sat down by a stream one day, about to give up in his quest, when he spotted a rock through which the water had bored a hole. He thought to himself that if something as soft as water had the patience to bore a hole in something as hard as a rock, then he had the patience to learn to read for his Beloved. And then he said that his relationships with the Palestinians are like that. He said he didn't believe in big flashy actions, but in the long slow building up of friendship and trust. A Taoist rabbi. I tried to tell him that I wanted somehow to do the same thing, please let the Palestinain people know that not all American Christians support support the aggressive actions of the settlers.

We were all pretty fired up and/or confused by the day as we went around the circle and checked in after dinner. The juxtaposition of the Western Wall with the security wall, the fences around the Polish ghetto and fences around the settlements, the victims becoming the victimizers. Again, I would feel less comfortable even writing all this if my Jewish friends around me and our hosts here weren't leading us to these conclusions themselves. Morgie herself mentioned the "victim mentality." Rabbi Paula had given us this wonderful essay by A.B. Yehoshua earlier in the day, and her husband Ariyeh brought up this one quote that said exactly something that I have been trying to articulate for years:
The victim does not become moral because of being a victim.
The Holocaust, with the terrible things that it did to us, did not give us an eternal justification card. It only made the murderers immoral, not the victims moral. To be moral, you must do moral things. And the test is constant and daily.
This applies to any oppressed group, people of color, the gay community, women, any religious or ethnic group. We don't become moral just because of being a victim. To be moral we must do moral things.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

the ground we share

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
whuch cannot be moved,
which stands forever.
As the mountains surround Jerusalem
so the Lord surrounds his people.
(Ps 125)

26 oct 2011

I was about to go out and find a falafel when the rest of the group arrive around 7 o'clock last night. They (and I) went immediately down to the dining hall of the King Solomon Hotel where there was a sumptuous buffet laid out, and then the tour guide, Morgie, got us all immediately into the bus for our first outing. I think they do this to keep people up as long as possible on the first night to start getting acclimated to the time change. But what an outing! We had an hour and a half tour of the excavated tunnels that run underneath the Muslim Quarter along the western supporting wall of the Temple. Of course, as places change hands one civilisation, or the detritus of one era, gets overlaid by the new. We were down two or three layers, running our hands along the massive stones all the way to the end of the wall itself where the stones meet the bedrock that had been shimmed off the mountain, and then that very bedrock was chisled to make it look as if it was cut and carved stone rather than natural. Down there also is an opening to see what is known as the foundation stone, the very center of the earth, according to ancient Jewish legend. At that spot there are people praying while the crowds of American, European and Asian tourists go streaming by.

This morning we were up and out by 8 o'clock. Morgie took us first by bus high on a hill south of the city to show us the spot where Abraham would have seen the land for the first time, and read to us from Genesis 12­­­­--
When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shecem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To you and your offspring I will give this land.'­­

­­--to start us out in earnest, back to the beginning of the story. Rabbi Paula led us in the berakah prayers of some wine and bread and we ate and drank to bless our journey together.

Of course looking to the east what we also saw from there was the other famous wall, the concrete wall dividing Isreal from the West Bank. Amazing to see it in person after having read so much about it. It looks like a grey snake winding through the hills. We will learn more about that later.

Our first day was a visit to the holiest places of all three religions: the Haram al Sharif, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

We headed first to the Haram al-Sharif (as the Muslims call it), the Temple Mound, to visit the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Since nearly the beginning of the Muslim reign in Jerusalem (well over 1000 of the last 1500 years), this spot has been commemorated as the third of the holiest places in Islam. The Dome of the Rock is built over the stone where tradition tells us Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice him. The Hebrew bible and the Qur'an have different versions of the story, but it is a foundational story for all three faiths, especially as evidence of Abraham's faith. It is also the spot at least somewhere near where the Jews believe the Holy of Holies of the Temple was. It is for this reason, among others, that Orthodox Jews will not go up there, partially because they fear stepping on the spot where the Holy of Holies was. Of course wound in there are many other religious and political arguments as well. There also is the Al-Aqsa mosque. This is the one that we sing about in the song "The Ground We Share," as "the farthest house" or the distant mosque mentioned in Surah 17, where Muhammad was carried on the horse Buraq led by the angel Gabriel to Jerusalem (though Jerusalem is never mentioned; it is assumed that that is "the farthest mosque"). Morgie told us that she told a group once how this mosque had been built in the year 705, and a man corrected her: it had already been there when Muhammad was carried there. She used that as an example: there is history and their is myth--and they are both true. She never debunks anything in her accounts of events associated with places, and I find that very refreshing to hear both the cold hard facts and the myths.

We could not go into either of those buildings; only Muslims can. This was not always so. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, as a provocative act, against the advice of people around him, to prove up point, went up to the Temple Mount in 2000. It was seen as, probably because it was, more a commandeering of a space than as a gesture of reconciliation. That set off a great wave of violence in Jerusalem that resulted in some deaths. So now, the place is under tight security and there is the presence of Israeli soldiers and police as well as being under the supervision of the Palestinians. We were also told that Muslim males under the age of 35 still aren't allowed up there at all. It is only open to visitors from 7 to 10 in the morning and then again from 12:30 to 1:30 PM. I hadn't heard the announcement to the contrary, but I was pulled aside by the security screeners because they saw my Bible in my backpack. Not allowed up there. So I had to go back outside and leave it on a table just outside security but already inside the long entry ramp. I could only retrieve it by coming back between 12:30 and 1:30 if I could get in at all, and there was no guarantee that it would be there when and if I returned. I really didn't want to lose my Bible, but luckily pastor Dave offered to stay behind with it since he had been several times up the mount in the past, which was very kind of him.

I have read so much about this spot in particular, and espeically about Muhammad's night flight, that I was thrilled to be up there finally. I was very saddened that we could not go into the mosque or the Dome themselves. We then went back down to the Wall to spend some more time, it being the first time for the folks on the tour. I again found it very powerful to be there and could imagine sitting there for a long time reading scripture or just pressing my forehead to it, both of which are done regularly there. One sad note about it (and we finds that every one of these holy spots has some history of contention attached to it): there was a Palestinian neighborhood tucked pretty close up to that wall until 1967. A few days after Isreal won the Six Day War that year and captured the Old City, they bull dozed that neighborhood (most of the people probably had fled) to make the plaza in front of the wall, which is now paved and elegant. Why must someone's consolation always be bought at the price of someone else's desolation?

After lunch we headed up across the valley to one of the sites that had been pointed out to us several times already, the Hadassah hospital. That is also a emblematic of the strangeness of this little area. When that hospital was built, it was a little island of Isreal in Jordanian territory which started just to the west of the Old City. It then became part of the state of Israel in that same war. Brigid's brother who works for the BBC wrote a book called "Six Days" that recounts how those six days set the stage for everything that has followed and continues to this day in this region. Aside from that (and it is hard for anything to be aside from that) when the hospital was built in 1959 the great Russian born French Jewish artist Marc Chagall was commissioned to do a piece of art for it, and he chose to do twelve stained glass windows depicting the twelve sone of Jacob, the tribes of Israel, for the synagogue. This is quite a hospital complex­­; it has its own shopping mall plus this synagogue. The windows were extraordinary and many people come to Hadassah just for them. We listened to a long explanation of the symbolism of each window. One of the windows carries a scar of the war, too. Some of them were damaged severely by mortar shells, and so Chagall was called upon to restore them. But he left one damaged piece of colored glass as it was, with a hole in it.

We then headed back down into the Old City for a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church goes back to the time of Constantine's mother, St Helena, who is said to have found the true cross, and discovered all the sacred spots pertaining to the crucifixion, Mount Calvary, which seems to have been little more than a hill, but was outside the city at the time of Jesus; Golgotha itself, the "place of the skull," a rock formation that looks as if it has two eyes, preserved behind glass; the slab where Jesus was anointed, the thing that I saw the other day when I entered the church unaware; and then the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus was buried and from which he rose form the dead. All of these spots are contained within the church. The original church that Helena has built was huge, three times the size it is now. The current church comes from the Crusader times, after 1099. The tomb was a cave cut into a rocky hillside. I have had in my mind all these years a big cave that you could stand up in, from the pious pictures we looked at as kids. We still never made it into the actual tomb that is supposed to be Jesus'. They cut the hillside away and a huge ornate housing was built around it centuries ago. There is, obviously, a long line, and only three people can get in at a time, and there was a lot of chaos and pushing and shoving and even some shoutingwhen we were there. But we did see another of the cave tombs that has been preserved just behind it. That was fascinating because I actually could get an un-gilded picture of what it might have looked like: a low cave with five fingers jutting out of it, each of those being just large enough to contain a corpse, then sealed with a stone. After a year or so after the body had decomposed someone would come and take the b0ones and drop them into a common receptacle near the front of the cave so that the tomb could be used again. Trying to picture all of that, the burial, Mary Magdalene, the angel, the apostles, was a wonderful exercise.

I don't want to scandalize anyone by what I am about to write, but I remained uncovinced by the whole place. First of all there is dispute over where the exact location is--the Protestants have an alternative site in a garden outside of the Old City--so that puts some doubt about the historicity of it all. But worse than that, if the presence, the spirit, of Jesus is in that building, for me it was covered over, hidden behind all the warring Christian factions who have fought (and still occasionaly do) for control over the place, not to mention the river of blood spilled by the Crusaders in conquering the Holy Land in the name of the Suffering Servant, the homeless rabbi who foreswore violence of any kind. I was equally put off by all the chaos of the place, all the various men (the custodians are all men, of course, monks, priest, friars) in their religious garb, and all the different ceremonies going on at the same time. The Protestant and Jewish folks in the group were not impressed at all, some left almost immediately, and I could hardly blame them. The one bright spot was the little Franciscan shrine of the Visitation and adjoining Blessed Sacrament chapel, which had an air of Vatican II-like noble simplicity, a stark contrast to the overwrought iconography and mosaics and layer upon layer of garish decoration, candles and statuary. I truly have felt the presence of Jesus much more walking in the crowded suqs (markets) and looking out at the hills surrounding Jerusalem and even at the kotel, than I did there. I had the same reaction to St Peter's in Rome though, so it's not out of character for me. I'd like to go back some time and see if I can't find something in it. I kept thinking of Virupraksha cave in Tiruvanamalai and wishing that Jesus' tomb was venerated as simply and reverently as that. Why does reverence always have to be shown by the addition of more and more decoration, more and more stuff? Why do we have to try to make things more sacred when they already are, like the tilda of Guadalupe or the new translations of the Roman rite, for instance?

more later...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

on the holy mountain

On the holy mountain stands a city
cherished by the Lord.
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all Jacob's dwellings.
Of you are told glorious things,
O city of God.
(Ps 87)
25 oct 2011, Jerusalem

I arrived in Tel Aviv around 2:30 AM. That's, obviously, not the best time to start your day, or end it, as the case may be, since you're totally between hotel check in and check out time. So my plan was to hang out at the airport until the first shards of daylight (and maybe write a song), and then take the shuttle into town, (there's a shared taxi service called Nesher, that Michaela had found all about) and then hope that our hotel could get me into a room as early as possible. I hadn't slept much at all the night before, maybe a few minutes here and there on the plane and at the airport; but I was too excited to sleep during the 45 minute ride in the shuttle from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As I had hoped, teh sun was just peeking over the horizon as we made the climb into Jerusalem. The area around Tel Aviv seemed relatively flat, but as we neared Jerusalem the terrain got much hillier, and I really did get a sense that we were ascending, making the aliyah, there.

It all worked out, though I wasn't able to get a room as early as I hoped (about 11:30). The gentleman at the front desk of the King Solomon Hotel was very kind, and he told me that he would try to get me in as early as possible. So I stored my bags, asked for the directions to the Old City and headed out. I knew we were close and indeed I made it to Jaffa Gate before the stroke of 8, After spending so much time reading about the history of Jerusalem especially these last weeks and months, it was quite a thrill to gaze at the ancient walls for the first time. And I thought, "It is this little walled in piece of geography that has been fought over for centuries, this land that has comes to carry such a weight of meaning for so many Jews, Christians and Muslims." How many different musical versions of Psalm 122 went through my mind?! I rejoiced when I heard them say, 'Let us go to God's house. And now out feet are standing in your courts, O Jerusalem.

There were very few places open and very little activity at that hour still. I just began to wander aimlessly, hoping to find somewhere to sit down and have a cup of something and a little breakfast, which proved to be quite a task. I did have a small basic tourist map from the hotel, but had not studied my guide book much yet at that point. I sort of stumbled into the Church of Holy Sepulchre. As you enter you encounter immediately, to my surprise, a stone slab that foks were venerating. I wondered if that was what they were claiming was Jesus' burial place, until I discovered that that was the spot where he is reported to have been anointed after being taken down from the cross. The burial place itself was in another protected area which already had a long line of pilgrims waiting. I wandered about for a bit and then headed out, up and down narrow streets among the closed up shops until I finally came upon a few vendors selling baked goods and an open coffee and tea place in the Muslim Quarter near the Damascus Gate. The Old City is (as some of you will know) divided up into four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian, which also is for the most part Christian, but none of the quarters contains exclusively sites proper to their tradition. Some great Christian sites are in the Muslim Quarter, and of course the Muslim Dome of the Rock and al-aqsa Mosque share the ancient Temple platform with the Western Wall, both of which are considered to be among the holiest places in their respective religions. As I munched on a couple of sesame cakes and drank a cup of strong Turkish coffee I got my bearings with my guide book, and headed immediately afterward to that area myself.

I can say honestly and without exaggeration that the Western Wall, the qotel, was probably the most powerful holy spot I have ever experienced. It is all that really remains of the second Temple, part of the great platform that Herod the Great built to support it by shimming off the rocky top of Mount Moriah on which is stood. In some way to understand the Temple Mount is to understand Jerusalem, it seems to me. Jewish tradition teaches that the Temple Mount is the focal point of Creation. In the center of the mountain lies a stone, called the Foundation Stone of the world. On top of the mountain is believed to be the rock on which Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac. Over that now sits the Dome of the Rock, one of the three holiest places in Islam. This is where the First and Second Temple were built, and the Ark of the Covenant was set. Jews believe the "Jerusalem was chosen by God as the dwelling place of the Shekinah," and a large a large placard told us that, even though the Temple in now gone, the Divine Presence--the Shekinah--never moves from the Western Wall.

The Wall itself is now considered a synagogue, an official place of worship. There is security screening getting into the area, a fence about 50 yards back separating the sacred space, another fence dividing the men from the women, and someone there issuing skull caps to anyone who does have one. I felt a little silly at first donning my white yamulka, but Bible in hand in made my way up to the Wall and found an open spot, and laid my forehead on it the Wall. It felt like the Wall was vibrating. I opened up my Bible and just happened to have Psalm 20 next in line to read, and it was perfect.
May God send you help from the sanctuary,
and give you support from Zion.
May he remember all your offerings...
May God grant you your heart's desire,
and fulfill all your plans
I thought of Valjean's 6th grade class at Salesian School in Aptos first (since I am on assigment from them to put there prayer request in a crack in the Wall, which I did); and then I was trying to think of everyone I knew and loved, and carry their intentions there too. I'm afraid to say any more about what the experience was like, but I read Psalm 20 again. It felt like the Wall was carrying suffering, and absorbing it but vibrating with it too. The psalm felt so real, more real than any psalm ever had. At one point someone had put a chair behind me to sit down, as is done, but I didn't want to take up any more time in the space. But I stayed outside the fenced in area for a good long time again. It was really extraordinary.

The security line and the queue for the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque were both so long, so I headed back to the hotel to see if I could get my room. It's a good long walk. It was still not ready but the gentleman told me that it would be soon so he sent me over to some couches to sit down. At which point I fell fast asleep (I had been up a while by then...) and woke up only when the same man was right over me me saying, "Sir! Sir Your room is ready!" So I settled in the room, showered and changed and headed out again and spent all afternoon walking and exploring again. I went back to the Wall, but the Temple Mount itself was closed to the public, so I still didn't get to see the Dome and the moasque. But that is on our itinerary for tomorrow. I also walked down through Lion's Gate, which it is believed the Messiah will enter, and down to look over the Kidron Valley (how many times I have sung about that in the Passion of St John? Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley...), and then down to the Tomb of Mary, which is supposed to be the holiest church in Jerusalem, but it was closed too. From there you can see Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, etc. but I didn't climb it yet. And then back through the Armenian Quarter and all the suqs (markets), and then finally back to the hotel where I crashed again. The rest of the group arrived around 6::45, and we had a sumptuous buffet dinner, and got right on the bus and went back to the Temple Mount again. I had no idea we were going at it right away. Our tour guide gave us a walking tour underneath the Western Wall, all the archeological tunnels, the huge stones layered below the present Arab Quarter, and the ancient cisterns, and finally even to the bedrock that is the foundation of the Temple. Simply amazing.

We'll be back there tomorrow for a tour of the Temple Mount which was actaully a garbage dump for many years after the destruction of the Second Temple. When the Muslims took over they recognized its holiness (which apparently the Christians did not) and built on it these two great structures, which we shall see tomorrow. Now, finally to bed...

Monday, October 24, 2011

something of inexplicable value

...I feel the sun itself as it blazes over the hills, like a million flowers on fire - clearly I am not needed yet I feel myself turning into something of inexplicable value . . .
(mary oliver)
24 oct, london

When we returned from London with just enough time to get a little rest, and for Brigid to runoff and set up the evening event. I was part of an event which included a book launch, an Indian classical dancer and me. It was held at a Uniting Church near where I was staying in Cardiff. I left the book with Brigid to mail to me so I am not going to get the name of the author nor the title of the book correct just now, but the author was a rather well known liberal Baptist minister (I said, "We don't have any of those where I come from."), a mentor of Brigid's. And the book was entitled something like "Encountering the Sacred in Unexpected Places." We met briefly before the event (he had been to the event at St Michael's on Tuesday) and he told me of his interest in dialogue with the neo-pagan movements and with modern science, beyond that of with other religions. (There's that pagan theme again.) He was interviewed by a well-spoken man who was a friend of his. It was fascinating. Then a young woman from Karnatika gave us a beautiful performance of bharata natyam, Indian classical dance with an explanation of the story she was conveying. She seemed particularly pleased to meet me because of my connection with India, and we had our picture taken together on her cell phone (so it's official...). And then I did my thing, which seemed to be a pretty good blend of the two previous events.

The next day, Friday, after a good morning off, Brigid brought me over to the house she shares with Richard, who is a professional musician and part time recording engineer as well. He has a recording and filming set up right there in the house. Brigid had had the idea that I should a couple more videos for You Tube (with due regard for the irreplaceable Devin Kumar...), and so we did. We had a lot of fun working together and also talking afterward. Richard travelled playing for Van Morrison for five years, so of course lots of anecdotes about life on the road, but also about the deeper things of the musical path. He is that kind of musician I have always gravitated toward, these guys who are great players, maybe session players, absolute pros, but may never be the stars in the spotlight. The Brigid and I made the long trek down south to county Dorset for the retreat weekend. We didn't arrive lit late that evening when everyone had already gathered. The retreat facility is called Holton Lee, and if I remember the story correctly it started as a Christian community, dedicated to spirituality and the arts. As a matter of fact one of the founders, Jodi, who is still there, was a member of the musical group the Fisherfolk who I knew of already some years. Now they have done few intentionally Christian activities in the past few years, but are dedicated to arts, ecology, and especially to work with handicapped people. They are experimenting with a few specifically spiritual retreats again, and this was to be one of the absolute first. Brigid had worked there for some time some years ago, so she knew the place well. When I left California there were only three people signed up for the retreat and we weren't sure it was even going to go, but by Friday, after the events around the UK and a connection with the Bede Griffiths Sangha through our old friend Jill Hemmings, there were a full 25, a perfect number for the facility. We were mixed bunch, some Catholics, some Anglicans, several non-affiliated. I make it a point not to ask what tradition people are from when we start. For some reason I don't want to know. I guess it's that I want to believe that what I am talking about is universal, and if it isn't then I need to change the way I talk about it. We only started on Saturday morning, but we packed in a lot between then ands Sunday lunch, including "stretching and breathing" (which looks suspiciously like a yoga class), the regular prayer service, teachings, meditation, and musical presentation like the ones I have been doing, and a nice Lectio and Agape feast to close. I thought it went super. The feedback I heard from folks as well as the questions they asked during the discussions made me think over and over again of Fr Bede, how he could re-articulate Christianity in such as way as to help people to make peace with it, and to understand the other spiritual traditions enough to be able to encourage and uphold them too, and so to aid anyone in their spiritual life. I left feeling very grateful for this work we get to do. We met in a wonderful white box of a room with ceiling to floor windows on one side that looked out to the east. During our stretching and breathing in the morning, it was still pretty dark when we gathered at 7:15, but the overhead fluorescent lights were too harsh, so we just had lit candles around the room. So the beautiful sun was coming up right in the beautiful faces of the retreatants, full on by the time we got to the meditation period at the end. I shall remember how several of them stayed afterward when it was time for breakfast, siting on the floor in front of the window, admiring the sun and letting its warmth spill over their upturned faces. "Awakening in this moment of peace..."

I think the work I have done here these past weeks has been good. "Clearly I am not needed," yet it would be nice to think that I might be doing something of inexplicable value. After lunch I took the train up to London, a good two hour journey, which I enjoyed as always, to Waterloo station, buzzing and cold, and then took the Tube up to Islington, where I am now staying with my friend, yogi and Rolfer Giovanni and his mate Luke. Just enough time for a good sleep, a hot bowl of porridge, a trip to the gym and then my other friends Paul and Catherine of Psallite are coming up from Portsmouth to take me to lunch and then drop me at Heathrow for the flight to Tel Aviv. I have nearly finished this second book on Jerusalem, saving the last few chapters for my time there. I feel like doing some kind of ablution to prepare myself, but I may have to content myself with breaking a sweat in the gym and a good long hot bath. I expect I'll have some things to write about from there soon.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

evangelium paganorum

I am here.
Anything more than that
is rumor and slander.
(Mahmoud Darwish)
23 oct, holton lee, england

One conversation that Brigid and I had in the car proved prescient. The subject has actually come up a few times during my stay here, and that is paganism, of all things. If I get this right (and there is always a chance I don't) the British Isles are particularly amenable to the rise of a kind of neo-paganism, so I am told, specifically because of the renewed interest in Celtic spiritulaity, which had/has a well-developed sense of the "spirits" of nature.

Now I need to clarify terms again before I continue. As I understand it, the original term pagan means the country people, or the people of the land who worship or at least commune with gods and spirits. What it came to mean was unbelievers or heathen, and comes to have a lascivious, debauched air about it. It's that second meaning that I want to avoid. As far back as the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures, pagan means the first thing, not just "unbelievers" but people who worship idols or, as St Paul says, "the elemental spirits."

I also need to distiguish between two meanings of another word, and that is "spirit." As Fr Bede uses the term it means that realm of Absolute Reality as well as that place in us which is beyond all name and form. As Ken Wilber might say, it's the causal realm, that from which all else comes. But when we talk about "elemental spirits" and such, we actually mean entities which dwell in the realm of the psychic, the realm of soul not the spirit, simply because (and this is Fr Bede's language) anything still within the realm of phenomena is really a manifestation of soul, even though we call even ghosts "spirits." He would say the same about visions, locutions, all kinds of so-called "spiritual gifts" which are really psychic gifts or siddhis in the yoga tradition.

So monotheism in some way wants to go beyond all those entities straight to Spirit and spirit. The argument for the Oneness of God in Judaism and Islam is a conscious avoidance of all those entities in the realm of soul/psyche, or at least not worshipping them. I don't think that those "spirits" don't exist, because that whole psychic realm is very real. And there are good "spirits" there as well as dark ones, just as there are good powers and dark ones. All the "gods" are some kind of manifestation of these powers, forces. This is actually something that the great mystics agree with all the way from Shankara and the Buddha to St John of the Cross: don't get caught in the realm of the psyche. Go beyond it to the realm of your spirit and the Spirit. St John tells his readers to ignore visions and locutions and go beyond up Mount Carmel where there is nada nada nada; Patanjali tells his readers in the Yoga Sutras not to get hung up on the siddhis.

So to me that is the issue with paganism. It's simply not my way. First, as a monotheist I do not spend any time worshipping the Hindu gods either at Mount Madonna nor in India (though I understand very well that all the Hindu gods are really manifestations of Brahman) if for no other reason than I don't want to cloud up my soul/psyche with more images and archetypes (I've got enough already from my Christian tradition that I need to go beyond), and also because it is simply not our way. I also don't spend time communing with the "elemental spirits" for the same reason. On the other hand, I actually do acknowledge their existence. I was telling Brigid the story of our late Fr Romuald who along with Fr Bede's teaching gave me the clearest practical understanding of all this. He showed me that we need to respect that realm, but we don't have to be afraid of it if we are rooted in Spirit. And so on several occasions he had counselled people with psychic gifts. He didn't freak out about it, he simply showed them how to put that at the service of God. When he was living in New Hampshire at our short lived monastery there, he was sure that the house was huanted with ghosts. And he simply let them know what they could and couldn't do, and then said a series of Requiem Masses for them for the repose of their souls.

So, bottom line, if people refer to themselves as pagans (and I meet more and ore people who do, proudly!), if they are using that to refer to themselves as "lascivious heathens," I move on. If they are refering to themselves as someone who communes with the elemental spirits or worships other gods, then we have a whole different conversation. I would never refer to a Hindu as a pagan, mind you, or someone from the First Nation tribes anywhere. That might be a term used by an old school missionary type, but to me it always has a negative connotation.

So, I said something about "pagan music" at the event the other night, trying to say that music from the native peoples of Alaska, for instance, wasn't just pagan music as the missionaries claimed, that had to be discarded and replaced with Gregorian chant or some kind of horrible so-called Christian music (and there was a lot of HORRIBLE music that I heard there). Well, someone in the audience who said she loved everything else I said and sang, felt as if I had stabbed her in the heart by saying that, because she was sympathetic with a lot of pagan practices, as was her friend who was with her. We spoke to me at length about it afterward. And I tried to convey all of the above.

What is funny about it all is that the third good of our Camaldolese congregation of monks was originally called, as noted in the subject line, evagelium paganorum, the "evangelization of pagans." We never use that phrase anymore (and that would lead to a whole other discussion about what it means in this day and age to evangelize too...), but Brigid teased me that I was having plenty of opportunities to do so during my time in the UK this year. It's interesting to try to figure out what it meant in the 11th century in Europe.

After the late drive back to Cardiff, Brigid and I headed to London for the BBC interview. I was afraid we were going to have to drive, but Brigid decided that we should spend the money and take the train, which was just alright by me, an extra two hours to read and write and relax. We got to the BBC building in London about noon. The producer met us in the lobby and ushered us up to the recording booth on the fourth floor. It was kind of exciting to be there, and there was a buzz of energy and creativity and Very Important People (and very tight security). The producer set me up in the recording booth and briefed me on the questions that the host was going to ask, and then she retired with Brigid and the engineer into the control room, separated from us by glass. The host came in shortly after. His name was Hardeep Singh Kohli. If not by the surname Singh, one could tell by the turban that he was a Sikh. He actually regularly serves as guest host on this religious show, "Good Morning Sunday," but his main gig is as a comedian, mostly on various broadcast media. He's a unique combination himself, a Sikh from Scotland educated by Jesuits. He was very quick and intelligent, and also a very good interviewer, and I enjoyed talking with him immensely right away. He made me feel right at ease and we were well into a casual conversation before I realized that they were rolling tape and we were well into the interview.

Hardeep asked good questions that I think really got what I was up to, focused on the balancing out of monk and musician, and what kind of mission or message I had, etc. The only awkward moment came when he said to me, "So you spent all those years are a Christian monk and an ordained priest; why did you leave Christianity and become a Buddhist?" I carefully explained that I hadn't actually left Christianity nor become a Buddhist. At that point he glanced down at his notes and then shot a dark glare into the control room at the producer, and then picked up and carried on. (It wasn't her fault; he must not have read his briefing carefully.) Later I quoted him the Darwish poem above: "I am here./ Anything else is rumor and slander." Anyway, he had me sing two songs as well, and I don't think he was just blowing blue smoke when he said how much he liked the music. He gave me a big hug at the end of the interview, and we both agreed even after the tape machines stopped running that we had enjoyed our time together. It won't be broadcast until December, just before Christmas.

On the way down with Hardeep in the elevator I was just catching snippets on the BBC live feed of a breaking story about someone being captured and killed but I couldn't make out who it was. When we reached the lobby we saw it also playing on the TV screens there, and we realized it was the story of Mohammar Ghaddafi. It was chilling, but also poignant to get the news there first, at the BBC headquarters. And right away I was overwhelmed by a kind of sadness that we had to celebrate something like this. Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden... Obviously we are better off without these men running anything, but in spite of our relief, I still don't think we are allowed, nor is it good for us, to celebrate and gloat over their humiliation and death. It brings out the absolute worst in us. Every time we have had a dedication of merit in the days since I have prayed for the people of Libya, Ghaddafi's victim, his family and the repose of his tortured soul too.

I've just finished up a retreat way down south in Dorset near the town of Poole. After lunch I'm heading on the train up to London to stay with my friend Giovanni for the night and then off to Israel tomorrow evening.

May all bengs be well.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be at peace.

Friday, October 21, 2011

nature, grace and glory

Haifa says to me,
"From now on
you are you!"
(Mahmoud Darwish)
thursday, 20 oct, on the train bound for london

I thought today I was going to have a morning off, spend time reading and maybe even getting to a gym, trotting up to the open market for some Welsh cakes and tea for breakfast... but it was not to be. Just as I was settling in to bed late last night, my host here, Brigid, called to say that what she had been hoping for had come through: she had secured a spot for me on the BBC's Sunday radio program, "Good Morning Sunday." I feared we were going to be driving there, three hours or so by car, but to my delight we are on the train instead, expensive but so comfortable and I can read and write on the train all the way to Paddington Station, my third or fourth favorite place on earth.

The next day, three events: first singing for 180 eighth form young people (12 year olds) at a private school. The best part of that was that Brigid's 11 year old son Joseph wanted me to walk with him to school, and we had a great talk about India and France and Los Angeles, music and the bishop of Wales. I told a few people that young people in large groups scare me, but it went well. I did "Awakening" and then a couple of singalongs (including "With My Own Two Hands") and the time flew by quickly. Afterward a rather conservative looking teacher came up to me--you can't tell a book by its cover--and asked me, "Wasn't that a Jack Johnson song?" Then we started heading north, and Brigid took me for lunch at Llantaranam Abbey. It's the site of an 11th century Cistercian monastery. Many years after that was demolished a lord built a beautiful mansion on the grounds, and in 1947 turned it over to the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Annecy, a French congregation of sisters founded by a Jesuit in the 17th century, suppressed and then revived in the 19th. Many of the sisters there were retired, but several are still very active. One, Sr Brita, is a higly accomplished artist, though she is away now in Ireland doing more study on Celtic spirituality so I didn't get to meet her. Another, Sr Alice, runs the nearby Ty-Creoso Centre (nearest I can tell that's pronounced "tea croysoh"), which means, "House of Welcome." While I ate with Sr Alice and Sr Maria Goretti, the superior, Sr Alice asked me good penetrating questions about my life and work, and about the Camaldolese in general. Again, I had probably already judged the book by its cover and was taken aback by how insightful she was and how broad her thinking was. She was talking about the future of religious life and the mystery of individual vocations within it. There were several aphorisms of their re-founder, Jean Pierre Medaille, SJ, that they had all memorized as young sisters, and she kept saying one of them to me over and over again: "Be what God wants you to be­­, in nature, grace and glory, for time and eternity." I sang for the sisters in the parlor after lunch, and then one of the sisters gave us an historical tour of the buildings and the site. Then as we went to Ty Croeso to say goodbye to Sr Alice she gave us a tour of that marvelous facility too, and they both loaded me down with literature, post cards and blessings.

We then headed up farther north to a little city called Abergavenny (accent on the first syllable, if that helps...). There is another ancient priory there of which all that remains is the stunning 12th century church, with its choir and high altar. On the site of the cloister itself there is now a large meeting room that is used for various groups. (When we arrived a meeting was going on for education in sustainable living.) It is now of course an Anglican church, but they had the idea some years ago to honor the Benedictine background of the place by holding "monastic days." Basically the idea is that as many people as could would pray all the liturgical hours together and follow a monastic schedule for the day. And, since I was a monk... they replaced the normal evening activity for an evening with me.

I tried to hint to Brigid that there was a good chance that I would not be the kind of monk they were looking for. There is a long storied tradition of rather classic English Benedictine monasticism here in Britain that was hugely influential on the English church, especially on the Anglican church which adopted many monastic elements as popular liturgical elements. The classic distinction between cathedral and monastic that still abides in Roman Catholicism does not abide in the same way in the Anglican tradition. For example, the tradition of evensong. One thing I find interesting is that in several places the choir sits in the choir stalls. Now that sounds right except that the "choir" (the place, the stalls) functions in ancient churches as the place where monks (or canons) would sing the liturgy, between the high altar and the congregation, who in ancient times would be pretty much observers of the liturgy. In some of the Anglican liturgies that I have attended, the "choir" sits there, meaning the trained singers, which still puts them behind the presiding minister during the liturgy of the Word, and between the congregation and the presider at the altar during the liturgy of the Eucharist. I am sort of fascinated by ritual as ideology in action, and the meaning conveyed by choreography, and I am not sure I understand what Lucien Deiss used to call the "ministerial function" of that choreography. I will have to ask someone. But at any rate, ai was afraid that my particular life style and liturgical sensibilties, not to mention the music that I was singing would not be in keeping with this style of "monastic." I kept hearing Sr Alice's words in my head: "Be what God wants you to be­­, in nature, grace and glory, for time and eternity"­­-- and in Abergevenny.

We got there just before Vespers. Two priests led it, with a handful of lay people in the choir stalls as well. One of the priests, with a beautiful clear voice, sang the Gregorian antiphons before each psalm, and then the two priests sang the psalms, right out of the Benedictine breviary. None of the other congregants sang, and I mumbled along, not quite sure what to do. And I actually was a bit tired by then and was sort of lulled into a deep quiet by the beauty of their voices and the place. The evening event was in the priory center two hours later. I wanted to make sure I was speaking to this particular crowd, and I thought I might have to come up with a whole new program, so as to go "from the kown to the unknown." So I spent some time preparing/rehearsing more mainstream pieces. But again there was actually quite a mix of a crowd, a few folks from the monastic day, as well as one of the priests, but it had also been advertised in several other places (containing three different starting times!), including enthusiastic and kind words by the local bishop and an article in the local paper, all of which had mentioned my particular approach to these things, so in the end I felt a little better and resorted to pretty much the program I had been using.

Then the long drive back down to Cardiff, the late night phone call informing me of this BBC gig, and here we are, about to pull into Paddington Station.

"Be what God wants you to be­­, in nature, grace and glory, for time and eternity."

(I'm heading to Dorset today for a weekend retreat. Will try to post once more before I leave for Israel about the BBC yesterday.)

the depth and the breadth

I walk lightly so as not to crush my cheerfulness.
I walk heavily so as not to fly.
In both cases the ground protects me
from disappearing into adjectives
that cannot be used to describe it.
(Mahmoud Darwish, "From Now on You Are You")

19 oct, 2011 cardiff, wales

I traveled by train here to Cardiff from Swindon yesterday. Sunday night Janet, the priest who had invited me for the events in Cirencester, had Patrick and I along with another of her friends who is an Interfaith minister over for dinner at her place in a village not far from Cirencester. Driving through the ever narrower roads into the village where she lived and then down her lane, for all the world I thought I was in a Ken Follet novel about medieval England. We had a great dinner and visit, and a lively conversation. Janet was originally in business, but before that had done her post-graduate degree in theology (patristics) at Oxford. A stint working in Japan led to her seriously studying Zen under a teacher there, and when she returned to England and decided to pursue her doctorate, she wrote on "Denying Divinity," a comparison of the negative language (the via negativa) in Dogen-zenji and that of Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius. She then went on to ordination in the Anglican church as well as teaching comparative religion (among other theological and philosophical subjects) at the college level. She has a particular interest in inter-religious dialogue, obviously, and this was the main topic of our conversation.

At one point Janet asked me what I thought we were really trying to accomplish in our work. My answer was, "Friendship." She asked me if I thought we were preaching to the already-converted or if we were doing something more besides. That was a good question. I said that it seemed to me that there was both a depth and breadth involved: the more I get to know someone and another tradition, the deeper my knowledge goes; that in turn allows me, inadvertently perhaps, to disseminate some understanding about others and their tradition to folks who may not necessarily have any interaction with people of different traditions, my own relatives and friends, other religious, etc. I think the depth is more important than the breadth, but it cannot help but spread, like love itself.

The next day Patrick took me for a long drive down into Sussex county to visit a wondrous place called the Ammerdown Centre. It is mainly housed in the converted stables on the estate of Lord Hylton, whose family still live in the manor house. Ammerdown was started by a group of progressive Roman Catholics shortly after Vatican II as a Conference and Retreat Center "nestling in woods next to a Stately Home, surrounded by beautiful landscape gardens and parkland, with an exquisitely beautiful chapel in its midst." So says the handout advertising the place. It really is a wonderful space, the chapel, a converted granary, I believe, with symbols of other faiths displayed prominently as well as the reserved Eucharist in a corner tabernacle. It is "run as an open Christian community dedicated to hospitality, spirituality and growth." The courses are wide ranging, everything from arts to spirituality. A sampling of earlier this year: Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Understanding Islam, Chrisitan Arts, Artisitic Influences of World Faiths, Gregorian Chant, Jewish Spirituality, Desert Mothers, the Enneagram... We had a good long visit and lunch with Mrs Benedicte Scholfield, the French born current director. She was keen, and this was the purpose of Patrick bringing me there, on me coming to do something for them in the future.

The event went well at Cirencester Monday night. I am avoiding the word "concert" because for most of these events the organizers want a talk as much as they want music, and most of them have wanted me to add a period of meditation in as well. It works out well for me. I bring my notes with me but I generally never consult them anymore and I just sit there and sing songs and tell stories. I've got a bunch of new stuff to talk about now that has been gluing together with more current reading and practice, so it seems fresh to me. The only downside is that I don't get to sing as many songs as I'd like and I am itching just to do a concert without all the talking, but this is a luxury problem. The next day, I was up early with Patrick to go and sit za-zen with a couple of his students at a local house in the village. He is now an official dharma heir in the White Plum lineage and runs a group here called the Wild Goose Sangha, the wild goose being an ancient Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit. Patrick has been a very serious student of Zen ever since I've known him. Janet says that he is the only one she knows who combines these three elements: a former married Angican priest who became one of the rare married Roman Catholic priests, and then went on to be come a Zen teacher. The room where I always stay is filled with his books, many on Buddhism. He is also always a great resource for new reads in general and I wind up wanting to tuck two or three books into my backpack as I leave... but I resist.

Patrick got me to the train headed for Cardiff later that morning, and I was met there by my very enterprising host, Brigid Bowen. She is a journalist by profession, now involved in several different projects, and also a long time spiritual seeker, interested greatly in inter-religious issues. Though a Catholic from birth, she is a student also of Thich Nhat Hahn, having been to Plum VIllage in France several times. She has had several things lined up for me this week. Tuesday night I was at St Michael's College, which is basically a training school for Anglican priests. mostly for the Church in Wales. I had a wonderful visit and tea with the acting director, a youngish man named Steven Baker. He had been to Shantivanam and was well read in many of the current thinkers on comparative religion The evening event was super. We were in an upper room in the library, which could hold only about 50 people. By 7:25 there was still only one person there, a kind elderly retired Roman priest with whom I had a wonderful conversation. He was 87 years old, and had seen a lot of life, including having been a conscientious objector during World War II. (That was mighty brave in its own way back then, maybe even moreso here in Britain where the bombs were actually falling.) I thought that I might be spending the evening with just him when suddenly the place filled up, every seat. I suppose it might have had something to do with a semi-academic setting, though not everyone was from the seminary. Several folks whom I met afterward had read or heard about it elsewhere, a Yogi, a few musicians, etc. It was the best evening I have had thus far; the crowd was so attentive, and that was certainly encouraging for me, especially knowing that there were several folks in the audience who were well read and sympathetic already. I found myself talking about Gregory of Nyssa during the introduction to "The Great Mother" from the Tao te Ching, and all about fana and baqa and the belief in the abiding self in the prophetic traditions during the introduction to Kabir's "Drink Sent Down."

Monday, October 17, 2011

god is one (pt 2)

A word of hope, encouragement and good news
a remembrance of humble saving power
a burning bush of unquencahble fire
a tnagible sign of hidden salvation
a window open towards heaven
a bridge of peace
a house of friendship
a noah's ark, a ship of fools
a shelter from the storm
a blessing on our life's journey
(Lord Hylton, vision statement of Ammerdown Centre)

(This is a continuation of the previous blog, a long version of a sermon I gave at in Cirencester...)

... Now, unfortunately, this breakthrough, this revelation and belief in monotheism in actual practical application, is often what gets blamed for (and is the cause of) religious wars. I'll give you one example, that Karen Armstrong writes about. When these same exiles (known as the golah) returned from captivity in Babylon, they immediately turned that revelation of God's inclusivity into a reason for exclusivity instead. Not only were the goyim--the gentile nations to be excluded, but even some of their own people. When the people of the old northern kingdom of Israel, known as Samerina, offered to help in the rebuilding of the Temple after the exile, they were rejected by the returning exiles! They were called the am ha-aretz, the "people of the land," members of the ten northern tribes and other Judeans, the children of those who had stayed behind. And in spite of the fact that prophets such as Ezekiel saw all twelve tribes as members of Israel and worthy of holiness, Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua his priest and their followers deemed that only the golah--the exiles constituted the true Israel, and even these Samarians were seen as enemies. Later, after the Torah became the official law code of Jerusalem under Nehemiah and Ezra, at one point even among the returned exiles men were commanded to send their foreign wives and children away to join the am ha-aretz. "Membership in Israel was now confined to the descendants of those who had been exiled to Babylon and to those who were prepared to submit to the Torah," Armstrong writes, and goes on to point out that from then on this "ruthless tendency" to exclude other people would henceforth become a characteristic of the history of Jerusalem. But doesn't this seem to be the tendency of religion in general when it is in search of a kind of cultic purity? Some of the actions and attitudes of Roman Catholics seem to have a tendency this way these days too. I have heard more than one person say how they wouldn't mind a "smaller more faithful church," and how many discussions I have heard about who should be denied the Eucharist!

That same situation with the golah and the am ha-aretz played itself out in Jesus' time. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus on his way to Jerusalem passing through Samaritan land. And the people of the region won't offer him hospitality because he was on his way to Jerusalem. Those who had been excluded now become the excluders! The violent cycle of exclusion keeps churning. So the apostles offer to call down fire from heaven, but Jesus will not allow it. Jesus is bringing a new understanding of the law and it is this: concomitant to love the Lord your God is that nobody gets left out, not the blind, not the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors and prostitutes. And who is my neighbor? Specifically the one who had been excluded: the Samaritan. What may not be obvious at first is also that Jesus is a Galilean, and the Galileans had a special appreciation for the Israelite traditions of the north where Galilee was located. The gospels quote the northern prophets (Elijah, Elisha, Jonah) but the rarely mention the kings and priests who were typical of Jerusalem and Judea. "They speak of the Isrealites as 'children of Abraham' and avoid the theology of Zion and the holy city." Furthermore--and doesn't this add an interesting element to understanding Jesus?--the Galileans "were probably accusmtomed to a more relaxed interpretation of the law, and were less strict about certain purity laws than were the Judeans." (Pagola, 50)

(An aside, that story of Jesus heading to Jerusalem always reminds me on not being able to get to Israel last year when we were in the Mideast, but we couldn't go because Syria would not give a visa to anyone who was on their way there, nor let someone back in the country if they had been. Chilling.)

So, somehow the way it gets interpreted and manifested, it seem as if it were built into the very structure of the Abrahamic faiths to be in competition with each other and with other religions and with other gods, and even within one's own ranks in search of cultic purity. And the Abrahamic faiths often get accused of intolerance because they manifest themselves not as a unity but as a kind of triumphant exclusivism. And so folks will contrast monotheism to the paganism of, say, the ancient Sumerians or Canaanites, or the polytheism of the Greeks and Romans, or Hinduism's henotheism, which are all seen as somehow more benign and tolerant because they accept a variety of gods. This applies not just to back then, mind you, but also now. This is a very current argument. I'm using "pagan" in the modern sense here, not in any pejorative sense. There are many people nowadays who proudly refer to themselves as "neo-pagans," and their tolerance of the worship of many gods gets contrasted with monotheism's rejection of all that in the name of this one God. In some way this is a valid critique, because how many times and ways throughout history has monotheism become a kind of supremacism, simply a claim to the possession of the absolute truth as opposed to others who possess only illusions?

But actually this revelation of and understanding of God's Oneness (at least as James Carroll argues it) is supposed to serve as an antidote to violence and a repudiation of any kind of exclusivism, because this is not a god who is opposed to any creature or people--this is the God of all creatures and people. It's a fundamentally positive message. And this is certainly not a god who is opposed to creation in general, because this is the God who is the ground of all being, and with whom, so Jesus shows us, we are meant to be in intimate relationship.

And relationship is somehow the key: our relationship with God is only exclusive in the same sense that any love relationship is exclusive. As in a marriage, where the exclusivity of the love of one partner for the other is pro-creative, the relationship gives birth and opens itself up to inclusivity, to children, to relatives, and hopefully eventually to an ever wider circle, to neighbors, to the tribe, the nation, and finally opening up to strangers and foreigners, to universality. In Israel's case there was a certain what we call "scandal of particularity," this One God having chosen one particular people. But even here it's meant to move "through exclusiveness to inclusiveness," as a marriage would, from one people opening to all people. That's why Isaiah says they will be "a light to the nations." This is what Peter and Paul come to realize as they began their mission to the Gentiles, that nobody gets left out. This is the genius of the idea of election in the prophetic traditions, that it doesn't involve "the oneness of total union in which the individual is lost," and it's not about simple uniformity. Again, like a marriage, why the mystics of all three tradition resort to the language of marriage and bridal mysticism. Election is a union of communion, the union of a relationship in which separate beings, while remaining separate, neverlesstheless come together, a union in which fear of and opposition to each other gives way to friendship. Of course, we Christians believe that that is exactly what occured in the Jesus' new way, and he even says to his disicples, "I no longer call you servants, but my friends."

The problem is not in the tradition, not in the religion; the problem is in us. We get it wrong. When we reduce God's oneness to an excluding monotheism, we get it wrong. When we think and act as if God's Oneness means that God is at war with other gods, we get it wrong. When we act as if union means the destruction of all difference, we get it wrong. No, union means E pluribus unum--from many to one. Bad religion is totalitarianism; good religion is union in diversity. The theme that stretches throughout the Bible going back to Abraham, Moses, David, indeed to the very story of creation, is God's oneness, a "oneness that unites rather than destroys."
Thus the genius of Genesis, and of the religions that follow from it, is the insight that all that exists was and is created by the same God. More: all that exists was and is created in that God's image. Oneness, not cosmic war, is the ground of existence. God is One, and each of God's creatures participates in that Oneness, with humans as the creatures who know it, even if, having a genius for evil as well as good, [we] tend to imagine it otherwise. (Carrol, 303)
And so the response that Jesus gives when he is asked about the coin in the Gospel of Matthew??--"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," he says, since Caesar's head is not it, "and give to God what belongs to God"??--really begs the question, "What does not belong to God?" The Lord's are the earth and its fullness. God is one.

So what is the antidote to monotheism (or any spiritual tradition) being exclusivist and triumphalistic? Only a real conversion, an experience of God not being the God only of Christians (or Jews and Muslims or anyone), but God who is the God of all people who are struggling to understand the fullness of divinity in their own (and our own) sometimes feeble and immature stabs at worship; to see the oneness of God not being about a quantity but as a quality, to understand God as the ground of being itself, as the ground of awareness itself; and to see the image of God manifesting wherever we see beauty, truth or goodness manifesting, be it in a great work of art, the budding of an apple tree, a work of scientific genius, in another religion; to recognize it in any kind of self-donation from a simple act of kindness to world-changing social reforms. And to make of our hearts and our homes and our spiritual communities little places of this unity, unity in diversity where union means not a bland comformity and uniformity, but a celebration of the panolpoly of unity in its beautiful diversity.

God is One.