Friday, November 14, 2014

Being in the World Who God Is

On my flight to Israel, I had the pleasure of sitting in a row with an Orthodox Jewish man who was on his way home to Jerusalem. I had the window; he had the aisle; the seat between us was empty. I was intrigued when out of a bag, he pulled a hot pink Hello Kitty travel pillow and placed it on the empty seat. I don't remember if he started the conversation or I did, but I learned that he was originally from Texas and had a Mexican heritage; he'd been visiting his mom, and the Hello Kitty pillow belonged to one of his two daughters. He told me not to feel bad about asking him to get up so I could get out of the row; it would help him to make sure he moved. He even invited me to use the Hello Kitty pillow.

When he asked about my travel plans, I told him about the prayers I was carrying to the Western Wall for people and about the singing I'd planned to do in St. Anne's, my favorite church in Jerusalem. I didn't mention Christian Peacemaker Teams. Maybe I should have, but both my nervousness about getting into Israel and the genuine pleasure of our exchange kept me from doing so. I didn't want to risk changing the good energy between us.

 Women pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
We are all connected. In the 9 1/2-hour flight, I didn't want to do anything to jeopardize the connection we'd made. I wanted to enjoy the kindness extended to me and offer the same in return.

The next day I stood at the Western Wall, many prayers in hand.  I read each one, prayed, "God, hear our prayer," folded the paper, and reached deep into the hole in the wall before me to plant the prayers. To my left a Jewish woman, head bowed, was praying, quietly chanting and rocking forward and back. To my right various women came and went as I prayed, folded, and planted.

We are all connected.  I have no idea what the women around me were praying for, but I believe that they were placing their deepest desires in God's hands, just as I was doing for others.  As I read the prayers of gratitude and those for healing, strength, love, happiness, forgiveness, I noticed that very few people gave me prayers for themselves.  The prayers were for loved ones and for people in places of turmoil. In the few prayers where writers wrote about themselves, they were, without exception, appeals made with the utmost humility. And all of the prayers, without exception, were about relationships - with God, self, or others. Nothing about more wealth or power. Nothing about harming people who had harmed them. All of the prayers were written with the hope for greater goodness emerging in our world.

God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we're asked to do is to be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus' soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. I heard someone say once, "Just assume the answer to every question is compassion." 

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Praying the prayers of others, I knew I was living in the world who God is. Every piece of paper I placed in the wall was a love letter. What a privilege to be immersed in the godliness of others. What a gift to witness compassion spilling from the crevices of sacredness.

If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow our compassion has to find its way to vastness.

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

The same day I went to the Western Wall, I visited St. Anne's...twice. The first time, as a courtesy, I stopped at the window in the courtyard where tourists pay to visit, simply to say I was there to pray and to listen. Having gone to St. Anne's many times, I no longer consider myself a tourist and have been told more than once that I don't have to pay. I told the sister at the window this; she replied that the people who had said it were wrong.  We went back and forth until she asked me where I was staying. I told her Ecce Homo Convent Guesthouse and she backed off.  "Oh, that's OK. You don't have to pay."

Our argument, combined with my still travel-weary spirit, had shrunk my sense of compassion. When I entered the church, a group was singing. The sound was beautiful and expansive, a stark contrast to the shriveling exchange I'd just experienced. I burst into tears. The tears streamed down my cheeks as I listened to groups release their souls into this cavernous church. As the tears poured (deep emotion of any variety comes out my eyes and this was not the first time I'd cried in this place), the only thing that kept me from a full-out sob was the knowledge of the church's acoustics.  Choking breaths was not a sound I wanted echoed throughout.

Upon later reflection, I realized why the sister's insistence that I paid upset me so much: you shouldn't have to pay to get into your own home.  St. Anne's is a home to me; it is a place where I feel the vastness of God through the beauty of song. Whether I am singing or listening, it is a place where my heart grows and I leave feeling more open to whatever is to come.

When I went to St. Anne's later in the day, the church was empty.  I didn't stop at the window and no one stopped me from walking into the church.  It was empty, except for a priest and one visitor. Then they left. I placed myself on the spot where the acoustics are best and sang.  Dona Nobis Pacem. God, grant us peace.

When I was finished, I saw that the priest had reappeared. "Keep singing," he urged me, "it is beautiful." I sang the Ave Maria, eyes closed. When I opened them, the priest was on his knees on the stairs to the altar. He invited me to sing more and I did.

With each note, my body relaxed. I sank into the release of beauty that somehow was coming from me, the relief of the priest's encouragement, and the sheer joy that singing brings me. I was living in the world who God is.

As I've been re-reading Tattoos on the Heart, I am ever more aware that my task here in Israel/Palestine is to assume that the answer to every question is compassion. Here in this place where hatred, mistrust, and violence are common, I am called to be in the world who God is.  It's easy at the Western Wall.  It's easy in St. Anne's Church.  Hebron is another matter.

This evening at sundown, the Jewish commemoration of the burial of Abraham's wife Sarah began.  According to Genesis 23, this happened in Hebron. What that means on the ground is that Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists descend upon Hebron. Today and tomorrow the mosque side of the building over the Cave of Machpelah (where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are said to be buired) is closed to Muslims, as are the checkpoints around it; the synagogue side is open and general revelry (read rowdiness) occurs - around the synagogue and along the roads where Palestinians are not even allowed to walk (even when it's not a holiday).  The closures mean that, for Palestinians, getting from one part of Hebron to another is much more difficult and time-consuming. In Hebron, Jewish holidays mean more restriction of Palestinian movement, more harassment of Palestinians, more detentions, more arrests, more violence.

One of our tasks on Friday nights is to monitor the roads that Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists walk to reach the synagogue.  As they walk through Palestinian neighborhoods, they've been know to throw things at Palestinian homes or harass or sometimes do physical harm to Palestinians. Israeli soldiers are stationed along the roads to deter such action, but if it happens, they rarely intervene. Tonight as we observed the crowds of settlers (who thankfully kept to themselves), I knew that this was a place and time that I must consciously make an effort to be in the world who God is, to recognize my connectedness to the people I observed.
Prayers left in the Western Wall

As each group passed, I'd choose a person or maybe two, and silently wish them the knowledge, deep in their heart, of the expansive love of God for all people, of a compassion that had found its way to vastness. At some point. recognizing my own need for that same knowledge, I changed the pronoun I was using from "you" to "we."

It was not an easy exercise.  It was not easy to pray for the young men who walked to synagogue with semiautomatic weapons slung over their shoulders, particularly after "you" turned to "we." It was not easy as we listened to what sounded more like a football game than prayer.

However, I know that this must be my practice and my prayer while I am here. In situations like tonight, where I can claim connectedness without much interaction, the practice, while not easy, was manageable.  I will admit that I have no idea how to live this exercise in closer proximity, where interactions may be provocative and people may be hurt. God, guide me with strength, wisdom, and courage to the answer that is compassion.

Meeting the world with a loving heart will determine what we find there. We mistakenly place our trust, too often, in the righteousness of our wind, though we rarely get evidence that this ever transforms anything...Sooner or later, we all discover that kindness is the only strength there is. 

- Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

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