Thursday, 15 April 2010

And so it is ten days since I left Jerusalem...

It has slowly started to sink in - that I will not get to Damascus gate by turning around the corner, that I have to say Thank you in Norwegian, and that it is absolutely impossible to buy Tishbi French Riesling or Noah Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. The canteen food tastes dreadful, vegetables are next to inedible, but tap water is better than the bottled one and sunglasses seem unnecessary even at midday in bright sunlight.

I am back. An article in a newspaper today said that we are importing worldwide conspiracy theories from the hate-filled Middle East. Eurabia, the author - a political scientist - said, means that Muslims are going to reproduce themselves at geometric progression throughout Europe. Wow! It is indeed a good way to discredit a term - by formulating it as an unprecedented absurdity. We are here, they are there, the author said. I thought in Jerusalem I will be saying the same thing in 3 weeks. Will I?

Tears were streaming down my face as I sat in our chapel, the pain of love getting too much to bear. It seemed back there at times that God chose to let me close to his heart, where love is so strong that it hurts unbearably. Pain and love. Two sides of the same coin. Will I choose to forget how it feels? I didn't like this getting close to the heart of God, being united to Him in his suffering and His love. You can't, you can't, I whispered, you never would have forgotten the flesh of your flesh, the blood of your blood. All your harsh words, all your cruel prophecies - didn't precisely love motivate them? If I can feel so much pain, how much more must you... I thought I saw him weeping over Jerusalem, choking with tears, crouched in pain... 

As days went by a thought, or a prompting rather, grew stronger and stronger, a thought I did not want to share with anyone but God, fearing it would be - at best! - heretical. That you chose in some strange way to unite to your suffering those whom you meant to glorify. Those who cannot be united to you in a mystical way, because they are not your mystical body, they are not the Church. And yet they share your own flesh and blood. And the very fact that you would not leave your flesh and blood means that you would also identify with them in their suffering - and forever unite them to yours. 

The picture of Father Ratisbonne on the wall that I have passed by so many times without even noticing it was there, made me stop this last week. Thank you for praying for me, I felt compelled to say. I have been living in his room for 3 months. I can't say I was entirely happy with what came out of it - and I feared his own congregation wouldn't have been entirely happy with me, either. Theologically, yes, but politically... I came to the Western Wall on my first Friday night in Jerusalem and put up a long speech on Israel, the Church and replacement theology. I went to touch the magnetic stones of the Wall one last time just a couple of hours before leaving on the Sunday of the Resurrection - and took back every single word. Just three months. 

On coming back, the first two articles I read - one about our identity in Jesus, the other about Jewish Catholic identity - seemed to complete and clarify my thoughts, that weren't heretical after all. The strange thing was that the articles came out of the blue, unsolicited, one in a Cistercian publication, the other in an online magazine. Politics is a tougher case, though. 

They haven't learned anything from their history, an Argentinian girl told me in the cab to the airport. I must have used this phrase myself. Did I come up with it on my own or did I hear it from somebody? I think I repeated it uncritically. An American pastor did the same thing. He saw barbed wire and 10-meter fence, and he said he thought of ghettos. Did he think or did someone help him to think? Who knows... Maybe he did come to the conclusion on his own, as I would like to have thought I did. But why? Why didn't I think of the Shoah in Belfast? Why didn't I expect the Irish to learn anything from their history? Or from someone else's? They haven't learned anything from their history... And? Let's teach them again? Is that what it means? Didn't the Shoah happen, at least partly, because of Zionism? Wasn't the whole nation attempted to be killed precisely because they dared to raise their voices to build their own state? Zionism came before the Holocaust. They haven't learned anything from their history - How does this phrase sound now?

So I am left to ponder the new questions and new feelings, emptied of my old self-confidence in knowing God or people, emptied of preconceptions - and in a sense more free than ever. I miss it. I miss the times we had together, the energy, the supernatural feeling of being fully alive, fully present, the joy and the laughter (no, sister Jacqueline, I am not always THAT joyful!). But I miss it in a good and peaceful way, without any hint of sadness. That's how it should be...

Friday, 9 April 2010

Inviting Our Inner Stranger/ A Pesach Teaching 2010

(by Sarah Yehudit Schneider)

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.
All who are hungry, let them come and eat.
All who are needy, let them come and join this Passover Sedar.
Now we are here; next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

The fifth stage of the Seder, called Magid (literally, Telling the Story) begins with the proclamation presented above, that is formulated in the colloquial Aramaic (instead of scholarly Hebrew) so that its invitation to the needy should be understood by all.

And yet, it has been observed that if we were really serious about this invitation we would stand in our doorways and shout it to the streets, or print it as a poster and tack it to our gates. Instead we speak it behind closed doors to the honored guests who are already seated.

One explanation is that we are speaking to the hungry and needy layers of our own soul, the parts of us that don’t completely buy this faith-thing. The dark corners of our psyche burdened by fundamental questions, doubts, lacks, fears or complaints. They are starving for truths that will resolve their disbelief and finally set them free. Our habit is to pretend they don’t exist—we shush their questions and stuff their cynical comments under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind, we start to imagine ourselves as immaculate and persecuted Guardians of the Faith.

One sure sign that it’s not so simple is when we feel intolerant toward other people’s questions and irritated when they don’t accept the answers we propose. That’s proof we haven’t resolved those issues to the full satisfaction of our own soul. If we were addressing the questioner with fully integrated faith, the encounter would not produce agitation on our part. Anxiety points to something unsettled beneath the surface. And further proof of our limited faith is the persistent presence of unrectified desires (aka, the yetzer). They show that our faith has not penetrated the corners of soul where those wayward impulses derive.

But tonight these inner skeptics and malcontents are honored guests. They get pulled from their dungeon, welcomed to the table…and really, the entire evening’s ritual is directed toward them. These straggling layers of soul are the limiting factor in our personal and spiritual development. They are the reason we are not free. As long as there are (disowned) parts of ourselves still not infused with faith, the Hagada’s declaration applies, “Now we are slaves, [but hopefully, and partially, as a result of our Passover Seder] next year we will be free.” Now we are coerced to behave properly, but next year our free choice will absolutely, reliably, lead us to the high road. Now there are parts ourselves still in the dungeon, yet the seeds of faith and experiential encounter with HaShem planted at this Seder assure that by next year they, too, will walk more free.

The mechanism is as follows. Life, among other things, is a spiritual path that courses upward with milestones along its way. At any given moment we are somewhere along its route, and that is our spiritual level. Yet, in truth, this level is not a line but an interval—a whole range of experience. At its upper end is our most exalted encounter with Hashem—the highest we can reach in study, prayer or purity of action. The lower end marks our more constricted states—how far do I fall before catching myself these days, and how frequently do these lapses occur. It is possible to change one’s level by raising the lower edge even though the upper does not budge. And similarly, vice versa.

The lower boundary is our personal Mitzrayim (Egypt) and it is good to be aware of its details. And so it is advised, in preparation for the Seder, to spend some time exploring the questions: “Where are the edges of my faith? What are the situations where my faith collapses into anger, fear, lust or doubt? What causes me to constrict and squeeze G-d out of the moment? What is blocking my next step in personal and spiritual development? What is my most self-defeating personality trait?" The idea is to identify the inhabitants of our personal Mitzrayim. They are the hungry and needy ones that we invite to the table and hope to liberate through our Seder.

We invite the hungry and needy layers of ourselves. And we extend that invitation to the hungry and needy souls throughout the world who are trapped in the same Mitzrayim as we—who are struggling with comparable issues, hungry for similar truths, chewing the same “bread of affliction.” And the wonder is, that between the slew of us observing Pesach, all bases are covered. Every soul in the universe is connected to a Seder and gets lifted by the transformative ritual that occurs this eve.

Blessings for a truly liberating Pesach for one and for us all. Let our holy Sedarim (Seders) send healing light to the dark corners of the world (including our very own souls). May all who are “invited” attend, and may they (and we) be changed, enlightened, cleansed and raised by its potent ritual of redemption.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Peace and Sword

I have not come to bring peace but sword...

And a sword shall pierce your own heart, too...

And so I am back to the normal life, back to the world of reason and subdued emotions - to look at it with the eyes that have changed. Yesterday I shared a cab to the airport with someone who had the exactly opposite views from my own - and Big Brother, as you know, is watching you. I was escorted right to the passport control in Ben Gurion ... As I was saying good-bye to my courteous and friendly escort, she wondered whether I was really that sad to leave. It's not just leaving, I said, it's all this. And none of us could really say anything else. What is there to say?.. Well, good-bye - and stay safe, I smiled. She raised her hands halfway up through the air, thrust them back down again, nodded with a sad smile - and left. Stay safe. Yeah, right...

I have been blessed and privileged to spend the Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem - the most special, but also the most challenging time in the Holy City. Holy Thursday was a special night in Jerusalem. We prayed on the Mount of Olives, in the Peace Garden of the Sisters of Zion - an order founded by a Jewish convert to Catholicism, father Alphonse Mary Ratisbonne - and then went down, through the Garden of Gesthemane, to the Kidron Valley (the Valley of the Shadow of death).

Some stairs lead up from the valley to St. Peter's in Gallicantu, a new church built next to the place where the house of Caiaphas once was. These would not be the same stairs that Jesus would have walked on, the ones that were used in his time led straight up to the house, whereas the modern ones start somewhat closer to the entrance into the valley - but you can see the ruins of the 2000-year-old stairs near the church. The ancient steps were decorated with red lanterns and a few people would sit on them, scatterred in a picturesque manner - some to the right, some to the left, narrow, half-ruined staircase - in silence and darkness, meditating, in awe.

I imagined what it would have been like back then - with no city lights and no cars, like a street on Panarea. Bats, olive trees, jasmine blossom, moonlight, a huge courtyard with fires, like the ones we would set up on the streets on a cold night like this, soldiers laughing, people eating... Peter loved the Lord so much, not less so when he sweared he didn't know him - yet he was betrayed by his own weakness, as we are, over and over again. My Lord and my King, the Lover of my soul, was spit at by the leaders his own people, the ones whom he longed to gather under his wings as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

Good Friday is a day of an endless Via Dolorosa, pilgrims singing under our windows from 5 am. I made my way of the cross at 7 in the morning, passing by an occasional group, but mostly couples and individuals praying the stations on their own. I prayed the last three outside the Church of the Resurrection, which was now closed - and an Ethiopian woman fingered my scarf to check the quality. As I lifted up my eyes, the police were already there, setting up roadblocks. The real Via Dolorosa was beginning. Soldiers, police and special forces in hoards, lined up along El Wad. With no real action happenning, they were taking photos, filming, chatting and drinking water on side streets.

A special forces unit geared up for street combat on a side street just below us looked really bored and would chat up the passers-by. They informed us politely that they would need to be outside our door. But nothing was going on and they were all too happy to have their photos taken, compliments galore. Stay safe, I said, as I took the last one.

The Via Dolorosa itself coincided with people going to El Aqsa for midday prayer, the two throngs of two faiths forming a letter T, merging with one another just outside our main entrance. The police and special forces have left by then, people left to themselves to figure out how to get through the narrow street packed to the brim. A walk that would take 5 minutes on an ordinary day took an hour and a half in this horror of a procession.

Sunday morning found us on the terrace, celebrating Mass in the soft morning light, overlooking the two domes of the Holy Sepulchre and the mount of Olives, reliving the story - and as for me, saying good-bye. Feeling unexpectedly peaceful, I went for a walk to the Potter's Field. Wanting to go everywhere one last time, I could never get enough of Jerusalem. Having seen the best and the worst of humanity in such a short time, what will I remember? The morning of the Resurrection? The fragrance of the Stone of Unction? The sister who told me she will pray to be like me, joyful? Singing the Yedid Nefesh in a synagogue? Praying in tongues at the foot of Mount Moriah, in the place where time and space bend and cease to apply? A discussion on an unusually warm Jerusalem night, next to shelves of books in a language I don't know, when the most dangerous idea of them all suddenly seemed to make perfect sense and I whispered, breathlessly: "I want to know more!"? David's Tomb? The soldiers? The Wall? Crazy shabbat meals? Tear gas and shooting? The realisation that nothing is what it seems? All of it?

Jesus - the King of the Jews, Pilate wrote mockingly... For a granddaughter of a revolutionary, a cousin of politicians, who grew up with guns and ammunition in her own house - I guess campaigning for Jaffa oranges would never really be an option. My grandfather was sentenced to death three times for what he believed in - then finally executed 20 years later by his own party mates. We don't live in a perfect world.

Swords and ploughshares... Yet you have no choice but to prevail. You cannot loose a single war. Not peace but sword... The one that cuts to the heart.

Stay safe.