Monday, January 27, 2020

Israel, Part 3: Jordan River, Qumran, Masada, Mount of Temptation

Wrapping up the Israel posts here with the “miscellaneous” category. Most of these sites we visited on the drive from Tiberias back to Jerusalem, though Jericho we did as a day trip out from Jerusalem.

Jordan River
We didn’t go to the actual place Jesus was baptized, but we did have a site that was conveniently set up for dipping and baptizing. We figured it’s all the same river, and the water moves anyway, so no big deal. Though actually, the water didn’t move very much—it was very still and calm. None of this “on Jordan’s stormy banks I stand” nonsense from all the shape note songs I’m used to hearing. The weather was cold and a little drizzly, so only a few people actually did a full immersion, though many more of us dipped and waded a bit. We also held a purification ceremony here, which felt very appropriate. Similar to the Galilee, which is its source, the water here feels very good, and just right somehow, even if cold.

Qumran is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, and where a community of Essenes lived, probably being the 2,000-years-ago equivalent of Ananda. There was a cliffside cave we could hike to without much difficulty. (Much less difficulty than the Mount of Transfiguration, to pick just a random example.) It was very small, and more likely used by bats rather than people, but it had a beautiful view of the desert and the Dead Sea, which made it a very expansive place to meditate.

This was less of a spiritual site, except inasmuch as Nivedita and I agreed it would be a fantastic place to take a seclusion if you could get the tourists away. Masada is an immense plateau towering over the desert, where King Herod built a nearly unassailable fortress. It has even more of a top-of-the-world feel to it than the other mountains and cliffs we visited, being so stark and bare. We had to take a cable car up to it because there wasn’t time to hike “The Snake Path,” though I would have liked to do that.

Mount of Temptation
We took another dramatic cable car ride in Jericho, up to the Mount of Temptation, though we still had a considerable hike even after that, to get to the monastery that is apparently just nailed to the side of the sheer cliff face. In a room above the chapel is the rock Jesus stood on when he was tempted by Satan. This is one of the very few rocks that you can’t actually touch, as it’s enclosed in glass. But I ended up having a very nice meditation just down the stairs from it, where the exposed rock of the mountain forms a wall of the chapel, and I figured I really was touching part of the same rock.

There were also tons of visitors from Africa there that day—Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, maybe other places. It added a very colorful and exuberant energy to have them all chanting as they hiked up the mountain in their various designs of ceremonial robes, and with all their kids. Because there were a ton of kids with them, of all ages though it seemed weighted towards toddlers. I don’t know if it was some sort of spiritual “family camp” or what, but good karma for the kids, getting to visit such holy places at such a young age.

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Alright, I think that’ll be it for my pilgrimage posts. For those of you in the area, we’re having a satsang on Friday night at Chela Bhavan, in the Ananda Community, if you want to come hear stories in person from many of the other pilgrims. And if you ever get the chance to go on pilgrimage in the Holy Land, do!

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Israel, Part 2: Galilee Region

With Israel being such a small country, it was very nice and convenient that we didn’t have to do much traveling. We stayed at the same hotel in Jerusalem at the beginning and end of the trip, and for a stretch in the middle we stayed in Tiberias, right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, from which most everything else we wanted to visit was easily accessible.

Church of the Beatitudes
One of the things Asha told us at the beginning of the pilgrimage was to be careful of expectations. If you expect to have a deep experience at a particular site, you may be disappointed, or you may simply try too hard and thwart yourself. And if you write off a particular place as being less interesting, you may miss something. Better to practice being relaxed and open and receptive at all times, and then see what happens. And I did find throughout the pilgrimage that there were times when I felt relatively unmoved compared to what people around me seemed to be experiencing, and there were times when I was very surprised.

The Church of the Beatitudes is a lovely church, located on the site of the Sermon on the Mount, and our group also got to reserve a nice outdoor terrace for an hour of singing and meditation. And that was all fine, but I wouldn’t have had anything particular to remark on about it. The “surprise” I had here was actually just in a 10-foot section of the path the goes along the side of the church and heads towards the terrace. Every time I would walk through it, it felt almost like passing a physical barrier, and I would have a sudden rush of shivers and tears, which would be gone as soon as I moved on. After the first couple times of not expecting it, I deliberately tested it, and it was consistent. I spent a while at the end of our visit just meditating there on the path, and while I still don’t know why that particular little spiritual vortex was right there, I hope I absorbed something from it.

Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter and the Sea of Galilee
The Church of the Primacy contains—as we are becoming used to—a rock, and specifically the rock on which Jesus was frying fish when he appeared to his disciples at Galilee after his resurrection. This visit was also the first time we got to actually visit the lake directly, since the church is literally right on the shore. The water was so completely calm and still that it was easy to imagine walking on it, though none of us did, that I know of.

We spent an afternoon in Tzfat, a city that is a center for Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and art of all types. The highlight here was visiting the studio of Avraham Loewenthal, a Kabbalah-inspired artist that we all felt and instant and mutual kinship with. I think true mystics everywhere will always recognize each other as spiritual siblings. Many of us bought pieces of his artwork to take home with us. I think it was very interesting also for Rami, our Jewish Israeli guide, to see this interaction, since it gave him a new perspective on what we’re all about to suddenly see such a relatively explicit link between us and a branch of his own religion.

Mount of Transfiguration
Mount Tabor is a much more serious mountain than any others we visited. The bus can’t go all the way to the top, so we had to wait for shuttles to take us the last mile or so. The shuttles were considerably delayed, so someone suggested that a group of us just walk. That sounded nice and reasonable, and then when someone else mentioned that there was a “shortcut” trail we could take instead of the road, we thought why not? Well, that trail turned out to be muddy, rocky, and nearly vertical in places. Luckily the weather and the landscape were both beautiful, but I should definitely not have been making the trek with a guitar strapped to my back. After about 40 minutes, we made a wrong turn and ended up having to climb a wall only to end up at the wrong church (I wasn’t expecting more than one up there!) but eventually we made it. This picture is from the very beginning of the hike, before we knew what we were in for. We don’t know how the light came out so magically, but the apparent source in the upper left corner is approximately where the top of the mountain would be. Transfigured in light!

View from the top of the Mount of Transfiguration

Our time in Nazareth was quite a bit shortened due to our escapades on Mount Tabor. When we got to the Church of the Annunciation, I saw a long line of people waiting to go and see the grotto that was Mary’s home, and I just didn’t want to spend my hour waiting in line. So I went to the neighboring Church of St. Joseph. And this was another case of having a “surprise” experience somewhere that you’re not looking for it. The church was perfectly nice, and the caves beneath it were unremarkable, but when I sat in one of the pews to meditate, I got such a clear sense of Joseph’s presence that it was almost like being introduced to him in person. Joseph mostly just has a supporting role in a story that focuses most dramatically on Mary and Jesus, but it couldn’t have happened without him, and the feeling that I started with was one simply of gratitude to him. And then the feeling I felt coming back from that was of an enormous heart just radiating selfless love and support and strength. I ended up spending most of that hour just basking in that. James came and sat next to me for just a few minutes at one point, but said later that he immediately felt a very strong presence there as well.

When I returned to the Church of the Annunciation, a few minutes before we had to leave, I found it empty and I was able to just walk right up to Mary’s grotto, though you aren’t able to go inside there. I was actually more moved by the statue of Mary outside. He has her arms outspread, as in many of the statues one sees of her. But she’s large enough that you can hold her hands and look up at her face as if she were your own mother and you still a child. Her hands have had the paint worn off of them by many pilgrims doing just that.

Final post coming up next....

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Israel, Part 1: Jerusalem and Bethlehem

I recently returned from two weeks in the Holy Land. This was actually the first time I’ve ever been on a major, dedicated pilgrimage with an Ananda group, and it was glorious. I’m not going to even try to touch on everything here, but I’ll at least aim for all the highlights (which, honestly, is still most of it). For photos, I’m going to piggyback on sharing Karen’s album, which is larger and better curated than my still-unsorted pile of photos.

But first, a word about rocks.
Israel is full of rocks. Everything is built out of stone. It’s incredible. I can’t imagine building a single wall out of stone, much less a city or a country. And this is true of all the ancient, holy sites we visited. It became almost a joke: “And today we’re going to see... another rock!” And if it wasn’t a rock, it was a cave. But I soon realized that this is absolutely perfect. How many holy relics will last for 2,000 years intact the way a rock or a cave does? It’s an immense blessing to still be able to have such a direct physical connection, to be able to touch the very same stone that Jesus, Mary, and others did all those years ago. So if my writings seem to develop and overly petrological focus, that’s why. It’s hard to convey when you’re not actually there, but these are all much more than “just” rocks.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre
I’m starting this post here because this is where I started my first morning in Israel, pre-dawn, on no sleep. And it’s also the place that felt the most like my spiritual home base for the entire trip. Every morning that we were in Jerusalem I would get up, usually around 4am, make the 20-minute walk over, and spend an hour or two meditating there.

The Rock of Anointing, where Jesus’s body was prepared for burial, was perhaps the most powerful place for me in the conglomeration of sites that make up this giant combo-church. I never cease to be amazed that it is just right out there in the open, in the entryway no less, for all the thousands of pilgrims to touch, and I never went past it without touching it, or sitting with it for a while. There’s a feeling of awe and sanctity there that’s different from anywhere else we visited.

It was hard to actually get in to the tomb itself, due to masses in the early mornings and crowds in the afternoons, but I did manage a few times. My other favorite places were the hole that the cross stood in, and the Chapel of the Apparition. The latter has a portion of the column Jesus was tied to when he was scourged, and which you can also touch. It sounds macabre, but this was also a beautiful spot to meditate.

The lowest level contains the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross by Saint Helena. For the first week of our trip, a group called Harpa Dei was in there each morning singing, and it was an absolutely exquisite experience to listen to them.

On two separate mornings we walked the Stations of the Cross, which of course leads up to and has its final stations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The first time we did it, it was early and dark and rainy, which was really just perfect, because you can really be in a different reality then, compared to the hustle and bustle of the daytime. I’ve never “done” the stations elsewhere, as many people have, but it was still stunning to realize that these are actually THE stations. Station V includes a rock, supposedly with Jesus’ handprint in it from when he fell. It’s now worn beyond any recognition as an actual handprint, but the feeling of it is strong enough to be true.

Church of the Pater Noster
On the Mount of Olives is the Church of the Pater Noster, which is famous for having large, beautiful plaques throughout the grounds with the text of the Lord’s Prayer in 140 different languages. (I even found a few different varieties of Braille, though disappointingly no sign language.) This, I realized later, is kind of a theme around the Holy Land. Many churches have similar displays of many different countries and languages representing their own particular themes, though this one was perhaps the most extensive. It’s sweet to see such a coming together of the whole world in these holy places.

Ein Kerem
Ein Kerem is a suburb of Jerusalem and has several sites related to John the Baptist. The Church of the Visitation is where Mary and Elizabeth met while both were pregnant, and I always thought the “belly bump” statue was kind of cute.

The upper church here has a huge painting on the back wall of Mary as the Lady of the Apocalypse, which isn’t a term I’d ever heard before, and which I still need to learn more about. But it’s a beautiful piece of art, and strikingly modern, especially facing the more traditional depictions over the altar.

We also got to visit the Monastery of Saint John in the Wilderness (it’s called a monastery, not a convent, though I believe it’s all nuns living there). The main road was washed out, so the bus took us up a winding village road to a place from which we could hike down to the monastery, which made it feel even more remote. The grounds are beautiful, and I would have loved to have more of a tour of monastic life there. But we did get to spend some time in Saint John’s cave, where he spent years in seclusion and meditation. “Long years he spoke only with God,” as Swamiji puts it in the Oratorio.

Bethlehem is also very close to Jerusalem, but feels farther away, since it’s in the Palestinian territory. Our fantastic Israeli guide Rami couldn’t actually come with us because of this, so we went on Shabbat when he wouldn’t be working anyway.

The Church of the Nativity had probably the longest line of anything we went to, and it wasn’t even a big day for them. Passing through the cave and bustling past the official marker of the spot was a little too busy for me to get much of a feel for it. Though I do like how this photo shows us all looking down into the cave, with a light coming up out of it. But we got to explore some adjacent caves at more leisure, and do a bit of singing there. And we were told that the caves were actually artificially separated a few centuries A.D., and the exact spot of Jesus’ birth could have been anywhere in them because no one is certain.

After that we went to Shepherds’ Field, which surprised me because I’d had no idea that there was a specific, known field we could actually visit. It’s a park now, and there’s a church on it, of course, and some caves where the shepherds would sleep at night. And most dramatically, you can turn around from the top of the hill and see the Church of the Nativity on its own hilltop across the way, and realize that that was exactly where the angel pointed them on that very night. Wow.

We also made friends there with a big group of Nigerian pilgrims who liked our singing, and we ended up singing a bunch of Christmas carols together and having a fun time.

The Western Wall
On our first Friday evening in Jerusalem we visited the Western Wall. It’s just heartbreaking to see so many hundreds of people coming together to pray there, but being unable to go all the way to their holiest site on the Temple Mount. But simultaneously there was also such a joyous feeling of celebration. At one point I was standing at the edge of a group listening to the song they were singing, when it suddenly just exploded into an exuberant, bouncing, spinning dance that spread out like a nuclear chain reaction, pulling more and more people into it and sweeping aside tables and chairs as it went. Very fun.

It seems a little ironic given that this was a Christian-focused pilgrimage, and a little silly in its obviousness, but I just loved how Jewish Israel is. I love that everything shuts down on Shabbat so that people can actually observe and celebrate it. I love seeing the ultra-orthodox in their garb that just proclaims their religious dedication, like seeing brahmacharis and nayaswamis around Ananda. As David G put it, for the Jews, this is their Ananda, their spiritual home and family, and for all the difficulties and conflicts and politics, it’s still beautiful.

Further posts to come, as I manage to get them written....