I love Israel and love Jews but it is an enormous joy today to reach the West Bank, Arabs, a good, welcoming hotel in Bethlehem, the Shepherd, and to hear the sound of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. There is a feeling of warm, chaotic humanity. Blessed are poor countries, certainly from my point of view as a visitor staying in a very comfortable hotel, though, actually, I did not choose this hotel and I usually prefer to put up in dives.
|The Greek Orthodox monastery St. Elias on Mount Tabor, supposed site of the Transfiguration.|
I had an enchanting day which began on Mount Tabor where the Transfiguration happened, according to St Matthew. We stood outside the Greek Orthodox monastery, feeling like the souls of the dead waiting to be judged, knocked several times but received no answer. The nuns were breakfasting. Finally an elderly nun shouted to us in good Romanian,
'Ask the Lord to give you patience'and after another five minutes the doors opened and we entered. Like most churches in the Holy Land it was not interesting from an architectural or historical view, but to think this is to miss the point. Location, location, location is the thing. And as well as location the monastery was pretty and it and its garden possessed an incomparable peace which comes from prayer and goodness.
A long journey into he West Bank and the Judean desert, the smallest desert in the world, then a surprise, this wonderful Orthodox monastery of Deir Hajla, near Jericho, founded in the fourth century. This monastery was ravishingly pretty indeed. It stands near the site of St. Gerasimus's cell and on the site where the Holy Family is said to have sheltered when fleeing to Egypt. Do I believe they fled to Egypt or that Herod massacred the innocents?
Everyone knows the story of how St. Gerasimus tamed a lion by removing a thorn from its paw and taught it obedience. He is the patron saint of animals and one of those rather few saints who appeal to unbelievers (most saints do not and many were pretty difficult people - think of grumpy, choleric St. Jerome who is unconvincingly also said to have tamed lions).
|Orthodox monastery of Deir Hajla, near Jericho, in Judean desert.|
A place that I had not visited before because it was not interesting enough is Jericho which claims, along with Damascus Aleppo and Erbil (Irbil, Arbil) in Iraq, to be the oldest city in the world. All four cities were millennia old when Rome was forest.
Then the mountain in the desert where Jesus resisted the temptations of Satan, the generic psychopath, the Father of Lies. I should do the same. Underneath a man sold overpriced but delicious pomegranate juice and another had tethered a camel, brought from some other desert, to make a little money.
Bethlehem used to be a majority Christian town thirty years ago and now alas Christians are only 27%. The Christmas decorations are up for commercial more than any other reason. Christmas is the town's principal industry.
Yesterday I saw Nazareth and the Catholic church built on the place that St. Helen, the former barmaid, decided in the early 4th century was the scene of the Annunciation. No doubt local Judeo-Christians had preserved a tradition going back to the first half of the First Century on the matter and an ancient inscription has been found saying, 'Blessed is the family'. The church was built in the totalitarian architectural style of the mid-1960s yet is more impressive than one expects from that disastrous decade.
An Orthodox church built in 1750 on the site of the spring where a legend, current among the Orthodox, says that the Annunciation happened. The priest told me through an interpreter that 'Israelis were very good for Christians'.
Then another church that might be built on the site of St Joseph's workshop but probably, I assume, isn't. In the crypt, however, is a ritual bath carbon dated to the first century, the oldest in the Holy Land. This church was built in 1914. The Holy Land is not a good place for old churches. Too many churches were destroyed too many times.
The long history of religious war continues to this day. Christians made up 20% of the population of the Middle East in 1900 but now only 2%. The million Christians who lived under Saddam in Iraq, for example, have fallen to at most 300,000 today. Christians are now leaving Egypt and Syria as well as the West Bank. Christians suffer in the Middle East because they are seen as sympathetic to the West, which Muslims rightly see is another word for Christendom, when in the West the links between the public culture and Christianity are being deliberately severed.
I spent yesterday afternoon in Tiberias, a pretty, spotlessly clean and tidy, unexciting lakeside resort. The Sea of Galilee is the thing, not the town. it was the sabbath and the place was empty which reminded me of Sunday afternoons in the seaside resort of my boyhood, also a rather Jewish place. Boring, I reminded myself, is another word for peaceful.
Yesterday I felt a sense of listlessness as I always did on Sunday afternoons in the 1970s but today was a wonderfully happy day and tomorrow I stand outside the Church of the Nativity, for midnight Christmas Mass. This church really is old, founded by St. Helen in the early fourth century, but, standing on the supposed site of the Virgin Birth its antiquity and its beauty (it has none) are again not the point.