Responding to the religious infighting of his day, Jesus said that the day was coming when true worshipers would worship, not on a mountain in Samaria nor in Jerusalem, but “in Spirit and in Truth.” Yet, do we really want that? We want something tangible. We want holy stones, like the Wailing Wall, or a holy well, like St. Bridget’s well or Jacob’s well. We want a holy historic place where holy blood was spilt, like Golgotha. We want a holy grave where we can venerate the dead, like the tomb of St. Francis. We want a holy isle where holy monks prayed, like Iona, as if the dust they brushed off their feet might somehow attach to the soles of ours and turn our souls to God.
I’m a Hajji, a woman who has made a pilgrimage. In fact, I’ve made several: I’ve been to Iona, and to St Patrick’s Cathedral, and to the tomb of St. Francis and the Portiuncola and to St.Damiano Convento and to the Carceri, the great Franciscan sites. I’ve been to the Vatican and the Colloseum. I’ve been to the Wailing Wall, to the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre (three times), and to the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. I’ve also been to Gethsemane, where Christ suffered anguish before He died, and to Dominus Flevit, the little chapel where we commemorate the tears he shed over Jerusalem. I’ve waded in the Sea of Galilee and seen the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I have way more prayer beads than I need, many of them purchased in just such a holy place as these, and my bookcases groan because of the weight of my theological library. I truly am a Hajji, through and through.
Why do I want these places, these things? Why do they have such a hold on us? Men and women are reported to have searched diligently for God in these places; we long for some kind of Divine touch there, at sites which we believe to be somehow permeable, somehow more open to the workings of the Holy than our mundane, flea-ridden and sometimes lonely every-day existence. We imagine the holy people who sought God in these holy places to be somehow different from the lackluster, irritating or otherwise difficult everyday people we normally see. Perhaps we think that going to pray in these places will curry some favor from God for us, or that we will be somehow changed if we pack our bags and traverse great distances in order to enter these places.
And it may be true that, when we arrive at them, because of our expectations, because of our faith, our prayer becomes deeper and we truly are changed.
Here in the West Bank I have seen something else. Hebron is the second most holy place in Jewish life. The place where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried in the cave of Machpelah is now a mosque and a synagogue. In the 1980s, a great massacre of Moslems occurred when an Israeli settler opened fire on them as they prayed in the mosque. Now the site is heavily guarded, and one enters one side or the other only by permission of the Israeli military, by going through a checkpoint with metal detectors and xray machines. The holy place of Machpelah has thus been profaned by violence. It is a place of anguish and uneasy truce, governed not by prayer but by fear.
Machpelah should be a holy place but for me it was not. Rather, at the Meitar checkpoint, that most secular of places where plain, ordinary men stand in line at 4 in the morning to go into Israel to work as day laborers, they kneel — these dusty, ordinary men carrying coffee and paper sacks of falafel, putting on their belts after the security inspection. They kneel and bow their heads to the bare ground and humble themselves and pray to honor the name of God. And so they hallow the checkpoint and I believe God meets them there, although most of them are too young or poor to have made the Hajj, the pilgrimage, at all.