I was expecting in this very ancient and holy land to discover perhaps the drive of faith. At this time I had buried deeply my disbelief in the supernatural, but as a spiritual guide and leader to a group of 20 some odd pilgrims, I wanted to ensure that their passion in their faith was not interrupted and that the faith they hoped to renew, the mysteries they hoped to discover were genuine and powerful. Even I, in my absolute personal certainty of disbelief held hope that perhaps here, in the cradle of the birthplace of Jesus, the home of God's chosen people, the place where the prophet ascended into heaven, I would discover that worrisome and elusive gift of faith.
The journey to Jerusalem was harrowing, trying to guide a group of 20 some-odd Americans, most of whom hadn't traveled before to the Middle East was difficult. A connecting flight from Denver to Jerusalem in Munich required lots of running, screaming, and worry that we had left behind (shout out to Kirk Cameron here) one of the pilgrims. Fortunately though we all made it, and the flight from Europe to the Middle East was made with only a few nervous buzzes and a very heavy heart of young priest.
Arriving in Israel was absolutely the most exciting part of the journey. The difficulties that Israel continued to face with its very uneasy peace at the time with the Palestinians. Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv was a military state. Armed soldiers, war dogs, tanks, machine guns, surrounded the airport, and the absolute ease that the Israelis pasted through this transportation hub is amazing, but for a group of Americans, who were very used to an easy and lax security program were immediately given a wide eyed experience in the realities of a divided land that was genuinely facing everyday threats of war. Only a few weeks after we departed a horrible terrorist attack occurred in July killing several people in Jerusalem. I had traveled internationally prior, having lived in Rome for a few years prior, and during my time in Rome I traveled to North Africa, Tunisia, and I was used to a state that was filled with active duty soldiers and instruments of war. However, upon setting foot in the land of milk and honey I quickly realized the honey was dried and the milk soured.
We were traveling that day to Jerusalem on bus with a Palestinian driver and guide. The guide, whose name now nearly 15 years later has been lost, was a friendly sort, and many Christian tour groups will hire Palestinian guides because many of them are Christian. Our guide was, though he was no lover of the Catholic Church, making it clear that his faith was Greek Orthodox in origin. The bus ride was uneventful for us, each tourist snapping pictures of the landscape, the desert, the camels, the small cinder block homes that filled much of the roadways. As the modern city of Tel Aviv fell behind us the landscape of the Israeli country side gave way to agricultural sights and sounds. People moving in a dry climate that was vibrant, green, but clearly made so by man's ingenuity. The land was striking though, and we were all in awe of the sights and sounds of a very modern country that wrapped itself in the mantle of an ancient middle eastern place.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, we were taken to the West gate (near the Jaffa Gate) in the Christian quarter. We stayed at a monastery of nuns literally living in the ancient wall of Jerusalem. The ancient building and quaint nuns made the entire experience romantic in many ways. My window looked down upon the inside of the city, and there I was able to gaze upon a bustling and thriving place, that without knowing it was a center of faith and prayer would still have been inspiring and beautiful. I suppose that it still is. We spent much of the pilgrimage touring around Jerusalem, Israel, the Holy Land. We went to Bethlehem, much different than before it was walled off; we went the Jordan where we re-baptized those who wished to wash themselves in the river. We walked the stations of the cross through the ancient city, following the steps of Jesus before he was taken to be crucified. We went to the church of holy sepulchre, and experienced perhaps the most divisive and sad experiences.
While at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a group of Eastern Orthodox priests were processing through the church to prayer. While on their way, passing our small group of pilgrims, they encountered a group of Roman Catholic friars, as they passed by each other one of the Orthodox spit at the friars, and they began to curse at each other as they walked past. This occurrence, not uncommon, and not as aggravated as some instances in which literal fist fights would break out, was so deeply and profoundly disturbing to me. Here in Christianity's most holy site, the place that the Christian's god rose from the dead to set man free from suffering and sin. Here these allegedly holy men, friars and monks, spat at each other and cursed the ground of their brothers. This within meters of the tomb. This moment, this display of humanity's weaknesses, hatred, pettiness, made me realize that my journey as an atheist could not be taken as a priest. The smell of the incense there, the sounds of rosaries being prayed, voices lifted up in exalted prayer were sounds and sights of humanity trying to find a way to better itself, but this way wasn't authentic. The prayers here, in this world ravaged place, the most holy place for Christians, weren't made driven by a divine faith, they were made by the loneliness of humanity trying to find a way to give meaning to life. I've learned since then that life is itself meaning. There isn't a grander value to life beyond what it is. I respect life, believe it is "sacred", but not because an external force has created it to be so, but simply because the randomness of creation is so marvelous that this is what makes it sacred. There is order in chaos because order is chaos.
During Lent I always remember Jerusalem. One of the moments I loved the most was visiting the olive trees that stood on the hills outside of the walled city. Some of these trees are ancient, thousands of years old. They have soaked up the blood of the pilgrim, the soldier, the rain, the sun, the moonlight. They have stood steadfastly by whilst the folly of man passes around them. In my mind's eye I imagined the world racing around these branches in fast motion, time lapsed as the centuries flew by. We were wandering around one set of olive trees on a day of meditation during the pilgrimage. I was reading from my bible the story of Jesus' last day on earth. I was struck during that reading of the story of Judas. His friend, his betrayer. I looked around and wondered if in these stories this tale held any truth. If in the world all these tales were true, that is God deems to become a man to save man from himself if it would be for naught. Would man again betray the very thing that would bring him peace? Would man act like those monks and friars at the Holy Sepulchre? Would man again spit and betray? I don't know, but so moved was I that I vowed not to lie, to be deceitful, to be loving. Strangely in that holy place I wasn't moved by the greatness of god, I was moved by the littleness of man. It wasn't a faith moment, it was a human moment. A realization that in the world we only have each other. It's a small planet that we share, and our greatness is not weighed by some eternal life later, but our greatness is weighed by the peace and love we bring now, in each living, breathing moment.
While in prayer (yes an atheist can pray - I suppose I should call it meditation) - I wrote a poem in my reflection about the olive tree, reflecting on man's betrayal of the divine and my own desire to in some way, live forever. Fortunately I am made of stars and into the stars I shall return.
The rough bark of your skin
Bites into my shoulder.
I touch your side and realize
You have seen thousands of years of life
perhaps even blood flowed
into your roots.
Did a crusader rest upon you
As I do now?
Did the words of a prophet
blow against your leaves?
You have a view, remembering
that garden, where
the one named Jesus fell,
You can remember