2016 Annual Shirley Sedawie Oration – Address by Mark Walsh – Living In Jerusalem: Navigating Conflicted Places
Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria)
The Annual Sr Shirley Sedawie Oration
“Living in Jerusalem: navigating conflicted places.”
Mark David Walsh
The King David School Junior Campus, Armadale
Sunday 10 July 2016
Acknowledgment of place and people
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of this land on which we have gathered today for the Annual Sr Shirley Sedawie Oration the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present and to those who will carry their history, dreaming and culture into the future. Their connection to country serves as an example for ways in which we too might better understand our own place in this land and in this world.
I would like to thank the Council of Christians and Jews for their invitation to deliver this oration. It is truly an honour to have been entrusted with this responsibility, not only because of the memory of Sr Shirley Sedawie and her work in the field interfaith engagement, education and dialogue, but also because of the place of the city of Jerusalem in the narratives, sacred stories and identities of so many of us gathered here today. How many of you here today have been to Jerusalem?
Can anyone really capture adequately the city that is Jerusalem?
The task before me is a very serious one and reminds me of a cliché that is often cited by those who have been given this same assignment.
A journalist came to Jerusalem for a week, he went home and wrote a book. An anthropologist spent a month there and went home and wrote a lengthy article. A pilgrim spent a year there and struggled to write a post card in response to what she had seen.
I’ve been living in Jerusalem for almost two and a half years now and if one follows the logic above, this may be a very brief oration indeed.
It is my intent to explore a series of small conflicted spaces within the larger political map that is Israel, Palestine1 and the Middle East in order to give a greater sense of some of the personal narratives, sacred stories and identities that shape the living reality of this ancient city.
From St Albans to Sion
I want to begin this presentation, not in Jerusalem however, but in the place in which I lived for longer than any other in my life, St Albans in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
I first met Sr Shirley Sedawie here while I was preparing to travel to Jerusalem to take part in a program offered by the Bat Kol Institute studying the book of Genesis at the Sisters’ convent in Ein Kerem in July 2001. Participation in this program required knowledge of Biblical Hebrew and Shirley had offered to tutor me in the weeks leading up to my departure.
Using a simple children’s book Shirley introduced me to the mysteries of the aleph-bet, greatly increasing the possibilities of my entering more deeply into the Scriptures that Christianity shares with Judaism in the Old Testament and the Tanakh.
This knowledge would also help me––as Shirley may not have imagined at the time––to decipher the intricacies of a drinks menu written in Hebrew: Cabernet Sauvignon is after all Cabernet Sauvignon in Hebrew and English.
More than this, neither of us could have imagined at the time that those mornings around the kitchen table in St Albans would eventually lead me back to the Ein Kerem in 2014, where I would be navigating the conflicted space of a guesthouse and convent as a lay person living amongst religious women and men.
Defining conflicted space
Conflicted place, or space, is a term I first encountered as part of my recent studies in Sean Freyne’s book, Jesus, a Galilean Jew.
Conflicted place is “a human construct that is constantly being negotiated and redrawn as different interest groups struggle for control of the social structures which define a particular place.” As a result, “places and their identities should be seen as unfixed, contested and multiple.”2
In turn, the social phenomena that shape an environment might best be seen as an encounter between, or confluence of, the many narratives, sacred stories and identities that comprise the rich and diverse realities of any place, be it St Albans or Jerusalem.3
My reflections on living in Jerusalem since March 2014 are offered as a lay person living in a Catholic monastery, a foreign member a religious minority, and a student in Jewish and Christian institutions who has had the opportunity to walk through this land that many call holy and to allow this land to pass through me.
My life in a monastery
My home for much of the last two and a half years has been the convent and guesthouse built by the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion in 1861 in the idyllic village of Ein Kerem in the Judean hills on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Our community is home to Apostolic and Contemplative Sisters, Brothers and Associates of Our Lady of Sion such as myself, as well as to the Sisters’ International Novitiate.
Community members and those who work with us speak Arabic, Basque, Brazilian Portuguese, French, Hebrew, Polish and Spanish with English as the common language for most of the community.
This diversity is not without its problems, as meaning is sometimes lost in translation and obscured by cultural differences. This confluence of cultures, however, also produces a richness that finds particular expression in our prayer and liturgy, as each of these languages and cultures is incorporated regularly in song and the proclamation of the Word.
It also comes to the fore in the many occasions when we celebrate life together, with dancing, singing and an endless variety of culinary delights. The celebration of birthdays in particular can take some time as we regularly sing Happy Birthday in each of the languages of the community, before enjoying a freshly baked cake.
Christian tradition connects this village with the stories of John the Baptist and with Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth as they are described in Luke’s gospel.4 It also recalls Elizabeth and John’s miraculous flight from Herod the Great and the slaughter of the innocents, which is found in the Protoevangelium of James.5
The discovery of a number of mikva’ot––Jewish ritual baths––beneath houses and the Catholic Church of St John BaHarim––which is Hebrew for “in the mountains” ––attests to the possibility of priests such as John’s father Zechariah living in the village in the time of Jesus and the Second Temple.
Of course no one can say with any certainty that the biblical and apocryphal narratives associated with Ein Kerem actually took place there––some would even question if they took place at all, particularly those recounted in the extracanonical Protoevangelium of James.
A reference to the Prophet John’s remarkable birth can also be found in the Qur’an.6. Ein Kerem was a Palestinian village prior to 1948 and in an abandoned Mosque one can find a spring, which is referred to as Mary’s Well, and which might also be connected to the commemoration of the Visitation, even though it does not appear in the Qur’an.7
Today, Christian pilgrims visit the sites which hold the memory of these stories, sometimes enjoying an ice-cream or a beer in one the village’s thriving restaurants, which are open late into the night as locals and others enjoy the quiet life away from the busyness of Jerusalem.
On the weekend, however, this calm is broken as local religious Jews celebrate Shabbat amidst the crowds of secular Jews and visiting Christians enjoying a relaxing afternoon with friends and family and availing themselves of the village’s restaurants and art galleries, as well as the beautiful gardens inside our convent walls.
Shabbat is also the busiest time of the week in our guesthouse, with Jewish groups coming from all over the country for workshops on Yoga, Tai Chi, mindfulness, meditation and even juice fasting. We also host regular concerts in our chapel, groups of Christian pilgrims, retreats and workshops.
[If you would like to make a reservation I can assist you with this during afternoon tea.]
I’ll never forget the first time I returned to Ein Kerem after a frenetic month spent at Ecce Homo in the Old City of Jerusalem to find what one of our associates described as the “walking dead” moving slowly and mindfully around our gardens, one-step-at-a-time-one-foot-after-the-other, in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.
Whilst the change of pace took some getting used to, after a day of watching their steps and my own, I was soon feeling far more relaxed then when I had arrived and was ready to settle back into a life of study, gardening and my other responsibilities in reception and reservations.
Working in reception on a Saturday afternoon often gave me the opportunity to chat with our guests as they enjoyed the late check-out. Many would speak of the feelings of peace and tranquillity that they felt in our gardens.
Others expressed the sense of healing and rest that they experienced there. It was not uncommon to meet guests who would return year after year and who always spoke fondly of the Sisters and their hospitality.
Today, the Christian presence in the village is limited to the Orthodox and Catholic institutions and Churches that provide tangible connections to the biblical stories that tradition places here.
The church also provides accommodation for those visiting the region and services for the local community, such as St Vincent Ain Karem,8 where foreign and local Christians, Jews and Muslims work together to care for children and adults with special needs from across Israel and Palestine.
Of course, this vision of shalom and salaam is a long way from becoming a reality throughout the land, but as I reflect on the presence of the congregations of Our Lady of Sion in Ein Kerem, I am struck by the images of sanctuary and of healing which we provide in the midst of a region that is all too often characterised by violence and conflict.
Our convent is actively engaged in an interfaith dialogue of everyday life9 as Christians and Muslims work together to provide hospitality for Jewish, Christian and Muslim guests, as well as for interfaith and intercultural encounters. At other times we engage in a dialogue of action, as we host groups working for peace and coexistence in the region.
Our convent has also been home to theological discussions, as the Congregations of Our Lady of Sion, Jewish and Christians scholars seek to address many of the questions that have that are now being asked in the light of a post Nostra Aetate Jewish-Christian relationship.
It was refreshing to see some of these same questions being asked in the Vatican’s latest document, “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).10
In addition to this, we engage in the regular study of the Scriptures we share with Judaism, sometimes in an interfaith setting, giving voice to interpretations and understandings and ways of reading that enrich those of our own Christian tradition.11
A visit to Yad Vashem
One of the most profound interfaith and intercultural encounters I experienced during my time in Ein Kerem was accompanying a group of postgraduate students studying tourism at Bethlehem University on a visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Shoah (Holocaust).
This group of Palestinian Christians and Muslims was part of a class on Jewish pilgrimage being taught by one of our sisters, Anne Catherine Avril. It was her students, however, who had suggested this excursion out of a desire to better understand both the Shoah and their Jewish neighbours. Many of them looked to a time when they could work freely as tour guides in Palestine and Israel.
With the assistance of one of her Jewish friends, Anne had obtained the necessary permits to allow her students to travel from nearby Bethlehem into Jerusalem and on to Mt Herzl. This, I might add, was not an easy task and bears testimony to the deep connections our congregation has with local communities and authorities in Israel and Palestine.
Any visit to Yad Vashem is challenging, but this one was particularly so, as Anne’s students came face to face with narratives that continue to shape Israeli and Jewish identities both in Israel and beyond.
At the conclusion of the visit Shlomo, our Jewish guide, invited the group to give voice to their experience. For many, this visit had put a human face to what had until that point a been historical event or a narrative that belonged to another people and to a place far from their own.
All recognised the suffering and tragedy of the Shoah and expressed their sorrow that these events had taken place.
One wondered at ways in which his own people might commemorate the historical events of 1948, which Palestinians refer to as the Nakbah, which saw the displacement of people throughout the land and the creation of refugee camps throughout the region.
In saying this, he was not trying to equate the events of the Nakbah with those of the Shoah, but rather to give expression to a reality that has shaped the identities as Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and throughout the diaspora.
In their Pastoral Plan of 2001, the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land––which comprises the various Catholic diocese of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Cyprus––gave voice to the ways in which the Shoah and the Nakbah have influenced relationships between Israelis and Palestinians since the establishment of the State of Israel:
In both cases, [they write] we are confronted with wounded memories because of injustice, oppression, violence and wars. The background from which these memories derive distorts the image of the other, making relationship difficult and harsh.12
Anne would later share with me that there were other excursions to Jerusalem, but that none had had the same impact as this one on the men and women in her class. Hopefully this, and other experiences will continue to give flesh to the many narratives that shape this land and these people, leading to empathy and understanding as well as recognition of the reality of each people’s suffering.
My life in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City
My life in Israel is not confined to Ein Kerem and three times each year I pack my bags to take the short tram ride from our convent and guesthouse to Ecce Homo, our pilgrim house in the heart of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, to assist with the programs conducted at our Centre for Biblical Formation.13
The Old City of Jerusalem is a world away from the village Ein Kerem, with 40,000 people living in a one square kilometre radius––30,000 of them in our neighbourhood alone.
The modern “Old City” of Jerusalem, with its walls dating back to the sixteenth century, is far removed from the city of Jesus’ time and the second temple. Its streets lay far below the present day stone pavements that pilgrims from all over the world tread today in search of traces of the past.
Christians, Jews and Muslims come by the million as pilgrims to this ancient city: oftentimes to the same places. Navigating the conflicted space of shared texts, stories and places at the centre of these traditions is not always an easy task.
A certain mountain
One example of this is a certain mountain rising to a height of 720m, with the Kidron Valley to its east and the Tyropean Valley to its west. The large space atop this mountain is known by many names.
To Jews it is Har HaBayit (“mountain of the house”), on which the temples once stood, or Har HaMoriah (“Mt Moriah”) the place associated with the “binding of Isaac.”14
To Muslims the space atop this mountain is called Haram al-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary”) and is home amongst other things to al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which commemorates the Isra’ (“night journey”) and Mi’raj (“ascension”) of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.15
For Christians, it recalls many stories of Jesus who came here to worship, learn and teach in the last days of his life, according to the synoptic gospels: though John has him visiting the city on a number of occasions during his ministry and the infancy narrative of Luke places him in the temple as an adolescent.
Muslim authorities control the space on top of the compound and today only Muslims can enter the Muslim shrines there. Jewish authorities control the space along the western and southern walls of the compound, which includes a tunnel that allows people to walk along a length of the wall at street level from the time of the second Temple.
A status quo has developed since 1967 when Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem during the six-day war. This agreement gives control of the sacred site to the Muslim community, with Jews and others being allowed to visit the site, but not to pray there.
Over the last thirty years, various groups and individuals have begun to challenge this status quo, seeking to allow Jews to pray on the site where the temples once stood and even to build a third temple on the site.
In September 2000, a visit to the compound by then opposition leader Ariel Sharon was one of the factors leading to the Second, or Al-Aqsa Intifada, which left 3000 Palestinians and 1000 Israelis dead.16
Today the situation is still tense and these tensions sometimes erupt into physical confrontations in this conflicted place where three sacred stories struggle for space in an increasingly challenging climate.
The confluence of religious, political and nationalist agendas concentrated on this 35-acre compound often results in entrance to the site being denied to all who seek access, be they Muslims, Christians or Jews.
On the Via Dolorosa
The sacred compound is separated from Ecce Homo, my home for three months each year, by the Via Dolorosa––the Way of Sorrows––the present site of the Stations of the Cross.
Although the practice of commemorating the final hours of Jesus’ life through a solemn procession dates back to Byzantine times, the location of the present Stations of the Cross was only fixed in the 19th century and bears little correspondence to any historical reality, but as Jerome Murphy O’Connor notes, “The Via Dolorosa is defined by faith, not by history.”17
A Muslim boys’ school now stands on the site believed to have once been the Antonia Fortress in which a Roman garrison was stationed overlooking the Temple Mount and in which tradition holds that Pilate condemned Jesus to death.18 On Fridays, when the school is closed, it opens its doors to Christians engaged in walking in the footsteps of Jesus.
Contemporary scholarship considers it more likely, however, that these events would have taken place in Herod’s Palace, some distance from here on the south-western corner of the Old City.19
Notwithstanding, it is the traditional association of this story with this particular location that allowed Fr Mary Alphonse Ratisbonne to purchase the land upon which Ecce Homo was built in 1855, when Jerusalem was under Ottoman control.
An archway across the Via Dolorosa, which was later incorporated into the architecture of the Ecce Home basilica, had been linked to Pilate’s presentation of Jesus to the crowd in John’s gospel with the words “ecce homo” –– “behold the man”.
Further, a stone pavement found beneath the property was believed to be that referred to in John’s gospel as Gabbatha––Lithostrotos in Greek.
Unfortunately for the Sisters, contemporary archaeological evidence indicates that the Lithostrotos only dates back to 135 CE, when Hadrian rebuilt the city of Jerusalem as a Roman polis. Fortunately, we also have a Herodian cistern, called the Struthion Pool beneath our pilgrim house and convent which dates back the period before the Common Era and the refurbishments of Herod the Great.
Each year, millions of pilgrims and tourists make their way down the Via Dolorosa, many of them visiting the sites beneath Ecce Homo. Their singing and praying regularly punctuates the sounds of the vehicles which share the same street making deliveries inside the walls of the Old City, disturbing its ancient ambiance.
Of course when I needed a taxi to transport myself and my bags to the airport recently I was quite happy to forgo this veneer of the timelessness of Jerusalem for the reality of a modern city that is home to people who need to go about their everyday business and to access the services that those of us living here in suburban Melbourne take for granted.
The tension that exists between the Old City of Jerusalem’s identity as a place of pilgrimage and its identity as a city that is home to 40,000 residents as well as numerous visitors often finds one of its expression in a phenomenon that I would like to call pilgrocentrism, in which the pilgrim, or tourist becomes unaware that his or her veneration of various sacred sites is stopping other people from going about their day to day business, such as shopping or simply getting from one side of the city to the other.
Sometimes, when I am left standing behind a group that is blocking my way as I try to move about the city, I take the opportunity eavesdrop on the explanations that tour guides provide to the many tourists engaged in what Lonely Planet describes as “the ultimate Jerusalem walking tour.”20
I am frequently left wondering as biblical and extra biblical narratives are combined with more recent traditions, misinformation and pious platitudes to create stories that are sometimes difficult to recognise, but this is just another of the “unfixed, contested and multiple” identities that is Jerusalem.
Whilst I might prefer a little more accuracy and transparency from some of the local tour guides, I understand the need within people to have concrete places where they can bring to life their sacred stories.
Anne Lee, a sister of Our Lady of Sion, summed this up beautifully whilst giving a tour of the Lithostrotos when she said,
It is pilgrims who make a place holy when they come to connect, remember, or bring to life the event that supposedly happened there. It is the act of remembering that makes the place sacred and it is the result of the remembering that is more important than the historical truth of the place itself.
The Church of the Resurrection
One place where this struggle is lived out on a daily basis is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which has held the memory of the experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection since early in the first century CE, and that Jerome Murphy O’Connor, who was reluctant to name any site in the Holy Land as “authentic” says was “very probably” the place.
The Christian denominations, who share this sacred site maintain an uneasy status quo that sees them ignoring daylight savings time so that their prayer rota is not disrupted. In the past the men who control this sacred space have even come to blows as they have sought to assert their control over the site.
Recently, however, the authorities that govern the church, have agreed to the restoration of the Tomb of Christ, a small rotunda that was damaged in an earthquake that covers what was once a cave in the side of a disused quarry, that is believed to be the place where Jesus was buried by his Jewish followers.
The cave has long since been dug away and the small rotunda now covers this sacred space, which Latin and Eastern Christians from all over the world come to venerate––many Protestant Christians remember these same events at the Garden Tomb in nearby East Jerusalem.
Some remark at the tragedy or the scandal that those responsible for this sacred space cannot seem to work or worship together, but Elio Passeto, a brother of Our Lady of Sion often remarks that the fact that this church functions despite its differences is itself a sign of hope.
Jerusalem is an extraordinary city that is trying to live a normal life
Earlier this year I found myself in the seaside city of Akko, enjoying a meal of freshly caught fish with two Israelis, one Jewish and the other Druze.
Our conversation turned from the meal in front of us to questions of home and to Jerusalem about which one of my companions remarked:
I couldn’t live in Jerusalem. I love it but there’s too much pressure there. It’s too special. Too holy. I can feel the pressure as I get closer to it. It’s better to live here and to visit there.
But Jerusalem is full of people trying to get on with their lives, “as different interest groups struggle for control of the social structures which define [this] particular place,” to quote Sean Freyne once more.21
It is an extraordinary city that is trying to live a normal life. One senses this in the numerous festivals that inhabit its secular calendar: beer and wine, food and film, music and arts, a marathon and even something akin to a formula one race toke place recently.
But can Jerusalem exist like any other city? Does its identity loom too large in the minds of those who call it home? Those who call it holy? Those who see it playing some part in an eschatological endgame? Jerusalem carries the weight and expectations of billions on its shoulders. Is this an unfair burden for a city and the people who inhabit it?
An answer might be found in our scriptural and wisdom traditions
To try and answer these questions, I turn to Sacred Scripture. I do so, not to justify ownership, or exclusive rights to the stones that provide a location upon which to place our sacred stories, but rather as an example of multiple and sometimes conflicting narratives living side by side.
Our own scriptural and interpretive traditions demonstrate the diversity of human experience, as it tries to give voice to the Mystery of the Divine at work in the only reality we know. These sacred writings bear testimony to the Transcendent, which is not limited to any place, but rather is made manifest in all of creation. As the Baal Shem Tov once said, “No space is free of God.”22
In saying this, I am reminded of the words of Fr Theodore Ratisbonne who wrote:
There are three books which have come forth from the hand of God, and whose riches—riches of beauty, truth and love—you will never manage to exhaust. These three books are Sacred Scripture, the wonders of nature, and the human heart. It is these three books which must be studied, and it is in them that you will find eternal life.23
I recently had the opportunity to work with members of the Anglican Christian community in Baguio, a mountain city in central Luzon in the Philippines. My topic was, “The Holiness of Land,” and it was meant to be a reflection based on my time in Israel.
As I sat with a group of clergy, many of whom identified themselves as indigenous people, I came to learn that I was sitting on sacred ground. The hills of Jerusalem, the place from which I had journeyed, were as holy as the hills of Baguio to which I had come.
The Mystery of the Divine is not made manifest only in Jerusalem, it is not born in Bethlehem alone, or revealed once and for all by the Sea of Galilee, but rather it is encountered in a myriad of places by a variety of people, both named or left unnamed. It is there in the pages of our holy books and in the voices of those who interpret them, bringing them to life generation after generation.
I am not discounting the importance of Jerusalem or the land we call Holy. My presence in the land upon which our sacred stories have unfolded gives me ever new insights into my own Scriptures and into the Scriptures I share with Judaism. It is an incredible place to study and to teach these sacred texts, for it draws people from all over the world to its ancient hills.
In their stories I get a sense of my own story and through their wisdom I am enriched, often when I least expect it. It is in the confluence of, the many narratives, sacred stories and identities that comprise the rich and diverse realities of Jerusalem that I discover anew my own narratives, sacred stories and identity.
I would like to finish with the words of Na?la, who works in reception at Ecce Homo and who is a Muslim Palestinian and who was educated at Ecce Homo when it was a girls’ school and who stands as a living example of one the many narratives that can be found in the streets of Jerusalem and the ways in which they come together in sometimes unexpected ways:
I feel my Spirituality comes from the Sisters of Sion who taught me the stories of the Prophets.
1 I will use the term Palestine throughout this oration in reference to what is sometimes referred to as the West Bank and Gaza, Judea and Samaria, and the Disputed, or Occupied, Territories. Each of these terms is fraught with political and ideological associations and none of them adequately describes the realities of an aspirational Palestinian state living in peace alongside the state of Israel.
2 Sean Freyne, Jesus, A Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus-Story (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 8.
3 Freyne, Jesus, A Jewish Galilean, 14.
4 Luke, chapter 1
5 Chapter 22
6 Chapter 21, verse 90.
7 Luke 1:39-56
8 The name of the village is transliterated in several forms, which accounts for the different spelling used here by this institution.
9 For more on the nature of dialogue see Secretariat for Non-Christians, The Attitude of the Church toward the Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission (1984).
10 Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 10 December 2015.
11 More information about our community can be found on our website: http://sioneinkerem.info.
12 “Relations with Believers of Other Religions,” Chapter 13 of The General Pastoral Plan, Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land (Jerusalem 2001)
13 For more information on the Centre for Biblical Formation, please visit our website: www.biblicalformationcentre.com.
14 Gen 22:1-19
15 Qur’an, chapter 17, verse 1 and various Hadith comprise the Islamic tradition with reference to this narrative.
16 For an overview of the situation regarding the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary read, Luke Baker, “Holy Rights,” Reuters Special Report, 4 June 2015, http://reuters.com/article/us-israel-jerusalem-dome-specialreport-idUSKBN0OK0VR20150604 (accessed 10 July 2016).
17 The Holy Land, Kindle location, 994-1013.
18 John 19:13
19 The Holy Land, 1014.
20 Lonely Planet, Israel & the Palestinian Territories, 7th edition, 2012.
21 Freyne, Jesus, A Jewish Galilean, 8.
22 The Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Word”: 18th C Polish Rabbi), source unknown.
23 Sources de Sion, No. 3, p. 17 : Theodore Ratisbonne (translated from the French by Murray Watson).