So much for Winter blues. Now we’ve got Corona blues.
Here in the UK this week, we are finally going into mandatory lockdown like the rest of the world.
Earth Son is under lockdown in Jerusalem. Three weeks ago, just before Israel closed its borders, I put on my golden jacket like a sunflower facing the sun, and leaving my English winter blues behind, went to visit him. It turned out to be my last week of unrestricted freedom.
Now that I can only leave the house to buy groceries, I look back at my week in Jerusalem with longing, as if it was a reprieve from this harsh new reality. I don’t want to reflect on my journey of light through the prism of a global pandemic. I want to write about the beauty of the light on ancient stone, the breath of mystery, inhabiting the past in the present. I want to know why a place can come to mean everything you could wish for so that you never want to leave it.
But now that we are compelled to look at the world through the lens of COVID-19, my journey to the Holy City in my golden sunflower jacket has taken on new significance. I didn’t plan this kind of timing. I just followed the light, and this is the story of where it led me.
I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in the middle of a rainstorm. It was dark and freezing cold. Not exactly what I had in mind. But it didn’t matter. The best sunshine is in the face of someone you love coming to meet you in the middle of a dark and stormy night.
(A writer should know. Some of the best stories start with a dark and stormy night.)
I don’t think you can really know a place until you’ve experienced it in the rain. It was raining harder in Jerusalem than it was in England. The wind blew out my umbrella and my feet were soaked within minutes of reaching the Old City. Rivers were running down the sloped cobblestones, turning the streets into one giant slip ‘n slide.
It was late so the Old City was deserted. We came through the portal of the great Damascus Gate trundling my 21stcentury luggage behind us along with every other modern sensibility. Son Who Knows the Way led me through an incomprehensible maze of narrow ascents and descents that hadn’t altered in two thousand years. I felt bewildered, exhausted, but also strangely, vividly alive. I was not being herded along en masse in the usual Jerusalem pilgrim manner, but spirited through the glistening night shadows like Peter after his miraculous escape from prison.
At last we arrived at a massive wooden door in the side of a stone wall. I held my breath. Where would I be transported next? Son of Labyrinthine Passageways reached out to ring, not a bell, but a tiny black buzzer. The door buzzed back.
Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t say, “Buzz and the door shall be opened”?
There’s an imperative about a human knock that can’t be ignored. It demands a connection, an answer from the other side.
Now we “buzz” ourselves into a place. Like flies.
Nonetheless, I checked in gratefully to the German Lutheran Guesthouse. The Old City has many such guesthouses, set up over a century ago in atmospheric mansions to house pilgrims to the Holy City. All of European Christendom seems to have a guesthouse here. The Austrian Hospice offers sacher torte and apple strudel in a delightful garden café. The Italian Casa Nova has a gelateria. Rates are very affordable, especially in low season, and accommodation includes breakfast. They are a welcome alternative for guests not wanting to stay in touristy hotels.
The Lutheran Guesthouse lives up to Germanic expectations. The place is simply furnished but immaculate. A rooftop terrace overlooks the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives. Just around the corner is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer with its famous bell tower. Could be perfect…
My room, however, was tiny and monastic. The bed was hard as a rock. In a city built on rocks, that’s saying something. I tossed and turned until four o’clock in the morning. Then the first call to prayer in the Muslim Quarter banished any further quest for sleep.
I staggered downstairs at first light in search of breakfast. I also asked whether changing rooms might be a solution to the prospect of a week without sleep. Turned out they had recently installed new mattresses in the entire guesthouse. I wasn’t the only sleepless pilgrim.
“I can’t stay here,” I told Son Who Eats Rocks for Breakfast. Even he declared the mattress a relic from the dark ages.
So I moved. I spent my first day in Jerusalem, not in search of the light (it was gray and cloudy), but in search of a bed I could sleep on.
I ended up at the New Imperial Hotel just inside the Jaffa Gate. The hotel is anything but “New” and has definitely seen better days. But the bed was comfy enough (I was allowed to “try” it out first) and a narrow courtyard outside the entrance ensures no loudspeakers will be blasting calls to prayer through your window at four a.m. There was also a vendor in the courtyard selling freshly squeezed orange juice every morning. The sweetness of that juice was pure heaven.
The New Imperial Hotel is one of those delightfully quirky remnants of the 19thcentury that abound everywhere in Jerusalem. It is owned by the Greek Orthodox, as is much of the Old City apparently, and a giant portrait of the impressively bearded Jerusalem Patriarch greets you with searching eyes as you “buzz” yourself in at the front door.
Unlike the neat and tidy German Guesthouse, the Imperial is overflowing with clutter and dark, ornate furniture. The walls are covered with historic photographs and drawings of Jerusalem. In an elaborate inlaid Damascene cabinet is a display of books written by the Swedish author Selma Lagerlof. There are pictures of her on a wall with a plaque stating she had stayed at the New Imperial Hotel during her visit to Jerusalem in 1900. She wrote a book of the same name, and in 1909 became the first woman (and Swede) to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’d never heard of her so became intrigued to find out the connection between this distinguished Nobel Laureate and the reason for her stay in Jerusalem.
Lagerlof’s novel Jerusalem is based on the religious group from Sweden who sold their farms and went to Jerusalem in the late 1800’s to join a cult known as the American Colony. The founders of this colony were Horatio and Anna Spafford from Chicago who believed Jesus’ Second Coming was imminent and would happen in Jerusalem. Horatio Spafford is better known for writing the famous hymn “It is Well with my Soul” after his four daughters all drowned in a shipwreck.
The American Colony’s former residence is now a luxury hotel in East Jerusalem. There is an Old World ambience that has been faithfully preserved in this oasis of calm and beauty in the middle of a city constantly beset by turmoil and conflict. The vaulted ceilings and courtyard garden remain as they were over a century ago. We wandered in and stayed for lunch. There is also a treasure trove of a bookshop and print gallery to also make one feel at home. No wonder writers and diplomats have a special relationship with this place.
Jerusalem is a city full of stories that connect with other stories. The threads of history entertwine over the centuries. As I explored (and got lost) that wonderful week of storm and sunshine (yes, the sun finally did come out), I uncovered more stories, every day. I met an Armenian potter whose grandfather created tiles for the Dome of the Rock. We found Horatio Spafford’s grave in the Protestant cemetery that held nations of names on the headstones, many of them Arabic names. All the stories of the world converge in Jerusalem. And every person who comes to this city is in search of their own story.
I first came to Jerusalem as a pilgrim in search of the story of my faith. (See blogpost On Pilgrimage from July 2017). Earth Son has come in search of the story that will shape his life’s vocation. My purpose on this journey was just to see and taste and listen to the stories of Old Jerusalem, to be able to wander and explore, absorbing the light of holy places as much as the light of the sun.
There is a pathway to every story. Follow the light and you will find that pathway.
My last evening in Jerusalem was a Friday, so we prepared a small Shabbat supper just for the two of us in Earth Son’s apartment. We were about to light a candle when there was a bold knock on the door. Not a buzz. A genuine knock! We looked at the door in surprise. Who could that be?
Enter Shalom, a homeless musician who often camped out in the stairwell. Earth Son had been friendly to him and Shalom showed up from time to time for a cup of coffee.
We invited Shalom to share our simple Shabbat supper–chickpea soup, challa bread and olives. While we ate, Shalom told us his story. The girl of his dreams had left him. Why would God allow such a thing?
“God is not just,” Shalom said, sadly shaking his head.
Poor Shalom. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees, obviously. Why would any girl stick with a guy who lived in a stairwell?
“I wrote a song about her,” he told us.
“Well, maybe that’s why God gave you music, Shalom,” I said. “That’s God’s gift to you, not the girl. You are able to express what others can only feel.”
Shalom nodded. “This is good what you say. But I don’t think God is just.”
That was about as far as Shabbat with Shalom went. God had still done him wrong, as far as he was concerned. We couldn’t get him to see beyond the trees.
Later, when I was reading the story in Mark’s Gospel about Jesus healing the blind man Bartimaeus on his way to Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but think of Shalom, homeless and muddling about in the dark, unable to see his way forward in life.
“What do you want me to do for you?”Jesus asked the blind man sitting by the side of the road.
Bartimaeus replied, “Son of David, have mercy on me…I want to see.”
Jesus gave Bartimaeus his sight and the man followed him down the road to Jerusalem. What did Bartimaeus see on his first journey of light, I wonder? Was he distracted by how much there was to see, or did he keep his eyes focused on Jesus, the Giver of light?
In this Time of Corona, we are finding we are all part of the Jerusalem story, connecting and entertwining with each other across the nations, even as we must stay separate from one another. And that is the hardest part, staying separate, not touching or hugging or inviting the lonely into our space.
The first physical contact I encountered in Jerusalem (after hugging my son at the airport) was this Arab in a headdress who made a beeline for my unsuspecting personhood. He immediately began to wrap a keffiyeh around my head! How do you resist such a determined salesman?
Can we ever be like this again?
I am sad. All of us are. The world is sick and there is no cure.
But as we approach Jerusalem on this unknown road towards Easter, keep following the Light. Like Bartimaeus, we have not seen this road before. There may be a dark and stormy night before we get there. But as the stories unfold, we will see we are not alone.
“Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the LORD, is the Rock Eternal.”