To the places
Where the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us
Day 5: Bethlehem – Site of the Visitation – Shabbat begins
Shabbat Shalom. Peace of the sabbath that began a few hours ago at sunset. It is observed with various degrees of respect for the strict religious rules; but it is universally respected as a time for family and for rest. The hotel has a special slow elevator that stops at each floor for the passenger to re-enter her destination. Strictly, it is forbidden to light fire (which includes starting a car engine or a light switch or turning on the cooking stove). But it is above all a day for several generations of a family to be together and for couples to express their love for each other. Religion can support this healthy idea in a way that government legislation never could. The twenty percent of ‘religious Israelis’ which means very or quite ‘observant’ pose a political threat and a social irritation to some but they co-exist with the lax secular fellow citizens who benefit from the Shabbat in their own ways. Problems would only begin in such a setup when one side tries to impose its practice and beliefs on the other. A regular contemplative practice develops tolerance and helps us understand that the shabbat shalom dwells in our hearts on every day.
When I arrived at Tel Aviv airport at the beginning of the pilgrimage I was happily and totally surprised to meet one of my Italian monastic brothers in the baggage hall. He has come here to spend time at our monastery in Abu Gosh, the site of Emmaus, where we will conclude our time in Israel on Monday. I bumped into him again unexpectedly at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem this morning. He joined our group in the jostling queue to visit the small cave beneath the church which is the birthplace. The heart of every pilgrimage is very small. Of the essential human pilgrimage, Shankara says that ‘existing in the space within the lotus of the heart, the Self has the size of a thumb’.
I mention meeting my brother monk to evoke a sense of the refreshing unexpectedness that, in my experience, is part of pilgrimage. I didn’t mention yesterday my surprising attack of acrophobia. We travelled up to the Mount of Temptation in a shaky cable car with disturbing episodes when it grindingly stopped and shook in the wind. The developing friendships within our group and the deepening sense of acceptance and affection are more profound parts of the shared experience. Travelling together, like living together, calls you to new places of relationship, towards either humility or isolation. Wouldn’t life be different if we every day, as pilgrimage: a journey with others to the sacred source?
The entrance to the church in Bethlehem illustrates centuries of history. For security reasons over time the main door had to be progressively lowered. The interpretation of this necessity was that even a king had to bow to enter the place where God humbled himself to become human so that all human beings might be enabled to be divinised.
Such a sublime idea draws people here to visit the small cave attached to the house where Mary gave birth. The translation, ‘no room for them at the inn’ gives the wrong impression of trying to find a motel with a vacancy. Better to imagine them staying in a crowded house with no private rooms and having to move to a quiet space when her time came. Be prepared today for a crowded, competitive throng of pilgrims in a tiny space trying to squeeze down on the ground to kiss the star on the floor, with its fourteen points representing the sequences of generations in salvation history. It is irritating. Yet, it expresses a reverence for the ordinary among pilgrims who smell like human beings and that immerses you into the mystery of the Incarnation.
What could be more ordinary than two pregnant women meeting to share their female secrets and interior mysteries: even to feel the life within them communicating? The Church of the Visitation is beautifully calm and beautiful, like a convent garden in contrast to Bethlehem. When we discussed our day after meditation back at the hotel it was, not surprisingly, the women pilgrims who opened the meaning of this moving and unexpectedly necessary gospel moment.
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