Once again, I can’t believe so much time has passed since I last wrote…
The autumn always feels so busy, especially after all the Jewish holy days are over. The temperatures cool. Pilgrims return. Students are back to school. And meetings seem to multiply.
So expect nothing profound from this post. Consider it more a snapshot of what life has been like since I last wrote.
Now that I’m feeling much more settled here, I’ve been trying to explore more of the land and hear more stories from the different communities that make up this complex country. Late in October, a colleague and I visited Majdal Shams, a Druze village on the slope of Mt Hermon, where we learned about the situation of the people living there. The village was part of Syrian territory until it was annexed in 1967, and many of the residents cling strongly to their Syrian identity. Few of them have Israeli citizenship, and carry ID cards which classify their nationality as ‘Undefined’, making travel outside Israel difficult. There does, however, seem to be a shift amongst the younger generation, who are increasingly applying for Israeli passports, especially as the war in Syria shows no sign of easing. And even amongst the older generation — certainly those we spoke with — there was a weariness in their voices when they talked about the current political situation in both lands: ‘So many stories of war,’ one of them said. ‘I could go on. But we have to learn to live here, in this place, with these people who are our neighbours now. We have had enough of conflict.’
Iqrit is another village with a heartbreaking history which I’d been intending to visit for a while, but as it turned out, I simply stumbled across it. Out for a drive in the northern Galilee, I spotted a cross on top of a hillside and drove up the steep path to discover the remains of the Arab Christian village, evacuated in 1948. Even though the evacuation was determined to be illegal by the Israel supreme court, Israeli soldiers nevertheless destroyed the village in 1951. The Catholic Church of Our Lady still holds services once a month, and most days, volunteers and descendants of the residents of Iqrit still can be found camping on site, in a hope that one day they may return. (Here’s an article from the Guardian with more information about the village and the current situation.)
The Scots Hotel has been full of international groups and pilgrims, and I always enjoy meeting them and hearing what brings them to this place. A Scottish family came over wanting to learn more about their history, so I spent breakfast with them one morning looking at photographs passed down from one of the matriarchs who had been a nurse in Tiberias in the 1930s. I also put them in contact with a local historian who was able to tell them more about the region at that time. I love hearing stories from people who have a connection to this place, and who remind me that we as a church have a responsibility to continue the vision of healing and wholeness that was the foundation of our presence here.
Then there are times when life here can seem utterly overwhelming. When stories contradict. When all I hear is criticism. When grace and forgiveness and kindness feel absent. When I realise that I’m tiptoeing through life so as not to cause offence to anyone. When all I see and read and experience is intractable conflict. And that’s when I know I need to walk. I had one of those times at the start of November, so much so that I needed 43km of the Israel National Trail to work it off. But by the end of the day, having seen the sun rise and set while on the trail, I felt stronger, more peaceful, more aware of God’s presence. Above all, I felt gratitude for the beauty of life which surrounds us, if only we take the time to open our eyes.
Sadly, on 10 November, I received news that a dear friend of mine from Old St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh had died suddenly. He was someone who was central to my formation, whose life and love made me a better person and better priest, and as I said to a few people here in those early days of loss: I’m not sure I know how to be a priest without him. A couple of days later, a dust storm enveloped the land, and everything was cast in sepia tones. The apocalyptic scene mirrored my interior landscape of deep grief and disorientation.
But life goes on, and in the shadowlands of sadness, the words from Mary Oliver’s poem Summer Day began to echo: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?’
A week later, I decided I needed a shift of perspective. Literally. So I went paragliding in the Galilee. In the peace, I gave thanks for my friend, for the gift of a life well lived, for the gift of love so openly shared.
And a week after that, I was in Edinburgh for the funeral, a truly glorious, poignant, hope-full, tear-filled requiem mass. The days around it were gentle: quiet talks with friends, wanders through Edinburgh’s wintry streets, cups of tea by the fire, and an opportunity to once again be at the altar for a joyful concelebration for Christ the King.
I have come to realise that each day we wake, we have a choice: Do we allow our losses and disappointments and hurts and struggles to consume us? Do we allow bitterness and anger and resentment to eat away at our souls? Do we allow ourselves to shrink into the pain and grief?
Or do we choose instead to use our losses and disappointments and hurts and struggles to become a source of compassion for ourselves and others? Do we choose to turn life’s difficulties into opportunities for growth? Do we choose to believe that new life can come after death?
Now the season of Advent has begun, the blessed time when we reorient ourselves in hope towards the God who comes to dwell among us in all the complexities of our lives.
And here’s a wee tangible sign that patience, perseverance, and hopefulness can bear fruit: our church building is nearly finished, and we will be back in in time for Christmas!
I wish you every blessing this Advent, my friends, as we wait and watch together for the coming of our Lord.