Thursday, August 25, 2011

Happiness Doubled by Wonder

Dipping my toes in the Jordan River
Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder 
                                                         - GK Chesterton

Some of you know that I have allergies almost year round. One of the side effects of this problem is a decreased sense of smell. During the really bad months I can go weeks without getting a whiff of anything. I can't smell my food when I eat. I can't smell my soap. I can't smell my freshly cleaned clothes. I can't smell a thing.

I often feel sorry for myself when I have particularly bad days or weeks and I generally vacillate between complaining to God, being angry at God and begging Him to take away my allergies.

The other day, I was caught off guard when I got a whiff of my coconut shampoo in the shower. I almost fell over with surprise and happiness. I spent the next couple hours smelling various delicious and not so ambrosial smells all over the convent. I must have looked like a bloodhound, with her nose to the ground, sniffing everything in sight. I was thrilled. I walked around smiling, enjoying my newly recovered sense of smell, as if for the first time.

During my prayer time in chapel that day, I gave thanks to God for the few moments of having my sense of smell back. I knew it would probably be gone the next day but I was filled with gratitude in that moment and I could not keep from overflowing in happiness, and expressing my thanks and praise to God for creating this amazing ability that most human beings are able to enjoy every day. As I was giving God thanks, I realized that I do not generally give Him thanks for my other senses of sight, taste, hearing or touch. These things I take for granted because I enjoy them every day. But it suddenly hit me that day in chapel, in a deep way, that everything in my life is miraculous not just my sense of smell - God deserves praise for it all.

As I thought about wrapping up my series of posts on the Holy Land, I realized that before I blog on my favorite spot of all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I wanted to write one more post on the River Jordan. 

This site in the Holy Land was not the most spectacular thing we saw. After we left, a priest told me that he once owned a book with pictures of the Holy Land published by the Daughters of St. Paul and he always wondered why the picture of the Jordan River was so uninviting and sort of drab. "Now I understand," he said to me as we walked away. But despite the unimpressive view, the experience at the Jordan did make an impression on me.

Icon of John the Baptist
John the Baptist is one of my favorite figures in the Bible. He was an untamed man who embraced extremes. John was in love with God and in tune with his vocation, so much so that his zeal led him to endanger his life and speak out against one of the most powerful men of his day, Herod Antipas. But he does not seem to care; John was full of a fire that does not die down when faced with risk and danger. Even the man's icons look wild and disheveled. Suffice it to say, if I had been alive in John the Baptist's days, I would have followed this Jewish guy around. He was on fire.

Going to the Jordan river made me wonder though. Why did John pick this place to baptize rather than nearer to the city of Jerusalem where all the people were? That day at the river, Tim Gray pointed out to us that John baptized people in a baptism of repentance. Their baptism was symbolic of their inner desire to reform their lives. Real repentance does not come easy and it is not comfortable. So, John asked people to really show that they were repentant. He asked them to make a daylong walk out to the desert.

The people who made the trip to the Jordan must have been tired and hot when they arrived. But if they were anything like me at the end of a long hike, they probably also felt really grateful for the cool water that awaited them, for their soft beds that would be at the end of their journey and the good food they would eat when they arrived home. These feelings of gratitude upon realizing how much they were blessed must have made their hearts even more open to John's baptism of repentance.

How do we know if we are really repentant, like the people who made this long walk to be baptized by John?

My experience of regaining my sense of smell for a few hours made me realize that I cannot be truly repentant until I am truly grateful. Repentance for all that we have done wrong is good and necessary but it must be done in light of all that God has given us. If we do not repent while at the same giving thanks then our repentance is incomplete, because it is the generosity and love of God that makes our repentance necessary. It is not until we realize just how much God has given us that we can realize just how much we have failed to respond to His abundant love.

Think of a moment when you have been grateful to God for something. It might be a drink of cool water after time in the hot sun. It might be seeing a beautiful morning glory blooming in your garden. Or it may be eating a delicious bowl of peach cobbler with ice cream. For that moment, we are noticing just one small thing that God has given to us and we give thanks. But how often do we really give thanks to God for all that we have in our life?

If we took the time to thank Him for everything, like we thank Him every once in a while for these small things, we would spend every moment of the rest of our lives thanking Him.

Maybe that is not such a bad idea.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Forgetting Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Cross - The four crosses represent 
spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the world.

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. - Psalm 137:5

Since it was established by King David 3,000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the center of the faith of the Jewish people. Because Christianity descends from Judaism, we inherit this reverence for the city of Jerusalem, particularly because it is the place that Jesus chose to lay down his life for our sins.

In the Old Testament, Jerusalem is referred to 669 times. I am not sure how many of those times are in the Psalms but I have noticed, in morning and evening prayer, the repeated references to this famed city of God. But I never really understood the focus on Jerusalem for Jews or Christians, until I visited this holy city.

Many people, when speaking of Jerusalem, speak of the clash between Jews, Muslims and Christians. With this in mind, I expected to enter a city full of tension and animosity. But upon entering the gates of Jerusalem, especially the Old City, I immediately noticed people of different faiths who live their faith in a way that in other cities would seem radical. The air of the city is permeated with the scent of God - the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. So many people in Jerusalem are focused on God, He is the center of their lives. I immediately felt at home among the people of this city, even though many of them were not of my faith, (I have said this before but I immediately feel a connection to anyone of any faith who puts God in the center of their lives. I feel that they are truly my brothers and sisters in the radical life of following God).

Graffiti on the walls surrounding Bethlehem
Of course beneath the surface beauty of lives centered on God, I did feel tension and longing in the people of Jerusalem. One of our tour guides was a Palestinian Christian who was working on his PhD, researching why Christians are leaving the Holy Land. He was full of frustration at the way Palestinian Muslims and Christians are treated by Israelis. When we went to Bethlehem, we saw a city surrounded by high walls. The people inside, many of them Christian, are prevented from travelling freely to the places where they might find work. Instead, many of them depend on tourism and unfortunately not all tourist groups go to Palestinian controlled areas. They are struggling to survive.

On the other hand, I felt the longing of the Jewish people when I visited the Temple Mount, the area where the ruins of their Temple lie beneath a Muslim mosque. Many religious Jews long for the Temple to be rebuilt a third time but even though Israel controls Jerusalem, they do not control the Temple Mount area. It is controlled by Muslims and a mosque called the Dome of the Rock is built on top of the place where the Ark of the Covenant was most likely kept in the Temple's Holy of Holies, (Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended from this area). Because Jews are not sure of the exact location of the Holy of Holies, many avoid the Temple area completely, in fear that they might enter a sacred space reserved for priests and violate the Torah. Instead, many Jews visit the Western Wall of the Temple, also called the Wailing Wall, behind which many believe the Ark of the Covenant is buried.

Men praying at the Western Wall
When our group visited this area, I was very moved by the prayerful longing of many of the Jewish people I saw. As they prayed, many of them shed tears. I felt empathy for them. If I lost the one place where God was truly present, I would mourn and long for the day that the Temple would be rebuilt. I approached the wall and prayed for my Jewish friends, slipping a paper in between the cracks, as many people do. When I touched the wall, I felt a shiver go down my spine and I felt the presence of God, perhaps in the Ark of the Covenant buried somewhere beyond the thick wall. As I left, I walked backward, as many of the Jewish people did, because they do not want to turn their back on God. I often see this in adoration of Jesus in the Eucharist; as people leave the chapel they walk backward. This simple similarity made me feel even more empathy with the Jewish people, especially because I believe I am able to be in the real presence of God every day because I believe that God is present in the tabernacle of all Catholic churches in the same way He was present in the Temple.

I left Jerusalem with stereotypes shattered but no concrete feelings about the political situation. It was clear to me that the situation there is much more complicated than perhaps any human mind can comprehend and my heart went out to everyone - Jews, Muslims and Christians - all trying to retain what they believe is sacred and to live their lives centered on the God they know.

As my memories of the Holy Land fade, I keep the memory of Jerusalem in my heart and pray that God will remind me to always keep the people of the sacred city close to me in prayer.

 The best song ever - 
Have fun at the concert Sarah! I wish I could be there...