Monday, July 11, 2005

A teary-eyed farewell

Our sacred trek has come to an end. The flurry of thoughts and emotions associated with good endings, however, has left me with much more than memories to reflect upon...too much, in fact, to begin to jot down here. The trip has meant a lot to me personally. One of the greatest priviliges a deliberate and lengthy "pilgrimage" affords one is the chance to share in some soul-searching conversations with your travel companions, and I must say it was a privilige to do quite a bit of that with Tamara and Krista and the people we got to befriend along the way. We learned a lot from each other sharing at length about our personal struggles with faith, singlehood, work and relationships, among other things.

The other great priviliges are the moments in your travels when you get to witness the hand of God. Occasionally, these are deeply emotive experiences, which take you by surprise and can reduce you to tears. I actually gauge the value of this trip by this "tear" factor.

When it comes to visitting pilgrimage shrines or the ruins of ancient cities, I usually don't experience much emotion at all, aside from that passive curiosity one might find about those objects that one is drawn to in a museum. I lived three years in Jerusalem and was never really moved by any religious site in it. To me, the physical religious environment of Jerusalem is mostly a kind of museum relic. I suppose this makes me quite a typical Protestant, which, not incidentally, also makes me quite a terrible "pilgrim". In spite of what it commemorates, to this day I still have a hard time relating to those teary-eyed pilgrims I encounter in the Holy Sepulchre.

Nevertheless, occasionally, a place does strike me deeply. My first occasion of this happened three years ago, not while I was in Israel, interestingly, but during a study tour of Asia Minor. The occasion was a visit to the ruins of Alexandria Troas on the Turkish shore of the Aegean, the ancient city where St. Paul received a heavenly vision to take the Gospel into Europe. At that point in my life I was a year and a half into my studies of Second Temple Period Judaism, and I found it somewhat befuddling there that God would take this man, a Pharisee of Pharisees, a man so zealous for God that he modelled his life on Phinehas, Elijah and the Rechabites, shake him down and send him to Europe to save his peoples' oppressors. To add to the effrontery that this "Macedonian Call" represents, just realize that the figure Heaven used to beckon Paul into Europe was indeed a Macedonian. Recall that it was a Macedonian who turned the eastern world upside down, Alexander the Great. So I wept because, standing on that Asian shore and looking towards Europe (as Paul must have done), I saw for the first time fully the God of Israel's love for the heathen, including my Latin ancestors. And I wept because this Jew of Jews, who had every reason to hate my people, turned the western world upside down with his message of unbounded Grace.

On this trip, I did not necessarily have a "weeping experience", but there were two instances when I did fight that undeniable dampness from forming in my eyes. The first occurred in Antioch (modern day Antakya, Turkey) the place where the followers of the Way where first called "Christians". We had been waylaid in Cappadocia because of stomach illnesses, and so we happened to be there on a Sunday morning. I was anxious to get into Syria to make up for lost time, but Tamara insisted that we attend the morning services at the local churches. What unfolded was amazing. We first talked to Father Dominco, the Catholic priest in Antioch, in his house church in the ancient Jewish Quarter. He was the first to relate to us about the very special movement of unity in the city between the Christian sects...and about their special developing bonds with the local Muslims and Jews. He was particularly proud of the fact that his church was in the Jewish Quarter, because of the heritage that that ancient bond represented, telling us that he and his Jewish counterpart delighted in calling each other "brothers".

Afterwards, we walked to the Orthodox Church in town. Along the way, I noticed that Father Dominco had also left his house. In the court of the church we encountered a friendly Syrian Christian named Joseph. He invited us into the service and told us before we entered that we were most welcome to attend. "I myself do not call myself 'Orthodox' or 'Catholic' or 'Protestant'", he explained to us as we informed him that we were Protestants, "I am only a 'Christian'". The significance of this statement at the threshhold of the Church of Antioch was not lost on us.

Inside the Church, I was surprised to find that Father Dominco was seated among the worshippers. I was already moved by Joseph's statement, but when I saw the Catholic priest in the Orthodox church, I began to feel that kind of special feeling you get when you are in the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was even more surprised when Joseph pulled us out of our seats to receive Communion. I was quite sure that we were breaking there every rule of both of our sects, but I was not in the state of mind to politely refuse. So we partook of the elements before the entire congregation. Immediately after the service, Joseph led us to a Protestant house church in town, to a congregation whose worship service was led by children and whose members apparently all have come recently to Christianity from Muslim backgrounds. I sat in quiet amazement after the service as one of the members recounted how his yearning to know God had led him to fundamentalist Islam and then to a remarkable encounter with the Holy Spirit.

A second occasion of fighting tears happened to me in Damascus. Weakened from amoeba, I went on a fruitless search in a market place for fruit yoghurt, the only thing I could imagine eating at the time. Thankfully, I passed the National Archeological Museum of Syria along the way, so I decided to pay a quick visit. Inside, I discovered that the museum housed the Dura Europa Synagogue. This entire ancient Synagogue had been carted from the middle of the Syrian desert to Damascus! My encounter was particularly poignant, even though it was now a relic in a museum, for throughout the trip, I could not help noticing the sheer lack of signs of Jewish settlement in all the cities we had visited since Sarajevo. The sadness I felt over this grew particularly acute in Syria, a place that had long been an important center of Jewish civilization. While the visit only punctuated this sense of loss, the frescoes of the Dura Europa Synagogue (for which it is famous) gave me some solace with the vibrant spirit of their bright colors and their celebration of Jewish resilience in the midst of destruction, war and dispersal. I stood before the ark niche in a kind of suspended gasp, only half-believing what I was seeing. Although I am not Jewish, nothing could keep me from singing the Shma at that moment in the heart of Syria's capital.