Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Jerusalem: Gazing on Heaven and Hell in front of us

JERUSALEM -- We stood on the roof of a French Benedictine monastery to the south of the Old City. We could see clearly the massive Temple Mount, site of the Jewish Temple built by King Solomon and destroyed by the Romans. Glistening in front of us: the gold Dome of the Rock, the third holiest shrine in Islam, built atop the ruins of the Temple.

Turning to the northeast we could see across to the Valley of Kidron, and the Mount of Olives where Jesus went many times to pray. Churches mark the places where he was thought to have walked, prayed and wept.

Turning to our left, and far below us, we could see a deep canyon – the Valley of Hinnom. Two millennia ago, it was the refuse dump for garbage and humans, where the sick, the tortured, the insane, and the dead were dumped. It is said to be a place even where child sacrifice took place. It was known as the Valley of Hell.

On a hillside halfway between the Valley of Hell and the Temple is a small church, St. Peter in Gallicantu, marking where it is believed Jesus was taken when he was arrested, and where Peter denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. The steps where Jesus would have walked have been cleared off.

On that spot, Jesus stood between Heaven and Hell itself.

I must admit I am having a difficult time understanding why this parched landscape could have been thought to be the holiest place on earth, and why people still fight over it. In ancient times, it had no strategic or economic value. It is dry, rocky, hard to reach, and not much grows here.

I think it must have had something to do with seeing the Temple – Heaven come to earth – and the Valley of Hell so close together. King David established Jerusalem, and I think he put it here precisely because it is remote and desolate.

People have come here for thousands of years to touch the God who is so elusive to them, so hard to comprehend, so hard explain. They come to see what cannot be seen, to name what has no name. Perhaps it is because this landscape has nothing else to distract from that quest that people could catch a glimpse of the ineffable, and more than that: They could see Heaven and Hell, and all at once.

Yet is also hard to escape the conclusion that human beings have been busy creating God in their own image here in this place. Jewish, Muslim, Christian sects have been here a very long time, each with their shrines, each with their own ways of praying, and their own story told their own way. All have put their stamp on this terrain, and some have stamped very hard. This city belongs to all, and therefore belongs to none.

And I am left wondering: as beautifully diverse as all of this is, can God really fit into only the shrines and languages humans create? Human hands created the Temple – and human hands created the Valley of Hell. Human minds and hearts wrote the stories, and human minds and hearts are still creating heaven and hell on this earth and in this city.

Yet isn’t God even larger than all this?

Photo by Lori Korleski Richardson

3 comments:

Ed Tourangeau said...

Am enjoying following your pilgrimage (have benefited from two St. George's courses). In '98 we heard TEC PB Griswold preach at the cathedral there - his point was that perhaps Jerusalem is a "sacrament of division" - holding before us our own brokenness. I still turn that over and over in my reflections.

Glad you found Abraham and his shop. He's a fixture!

Ed Tourangeau

Mike Montgomery said...

On the way home, stop by the Benedictine monastery in Fecamp France (Normandy). Lush landscape, beautiful castle-monastary, and it's where they actually make Benedictine liquer - La grande Liquer de Francais. The tour is fun and you'll have time to see the Bayeux tapastry just down the road as well as the D-day beaches.

Harry Allagree said...

Thank you, Jim & Lori, for your wonderful reflections/commentary & lovely pictures, & for the opportunity to follow you on a journey which I'd wished to make along with you & the others. My prayers are with you each day.